, Research Paper
The Evolution of the Film Industry
The progress of the film industry was remarkably fast in the first quarter of this century. I have chosen two films namely The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Greed (1924) for comparison and contrast to show how much the industry had evolved within the short span of nine years. These two films are chosen for the short time span between them. This short time span will enable us to evaluate the development of the film industry in terms of the psychological build-up of the plot and the characters, cinematic qualities and the gradual acceptance of ironies in the films on the part of the American audience.
D.W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed are both films adapted from novels written by Thomas Dixon and Frank Norris respectively. However one of the differences between these two films lies in the human characters portrayed. In The Birth of a Nation, the characters are portrayed as either wholly good or evil. One could easily distinguish between the heroes and villains in the film. For example, the hero in the film, Ben Stoneman is portrayed as courageous, loving and righteous as opposed to the villains Lynch (the false reformer) and Gus (the black soldier), who are portrayed as scheming and lustful. This lopsided depiction of human nature is not realistic, as humans cannot be either wholly good or wholly evil. This is an example of idealism with clear influences from Pollyanna stories, which was well accepted by the audience then. Thus a realistic depiction of humans should be that of portraying their strengths and weaknesses.
The characters in Von Stroheim’s Greed, on the other hand, possess this practical depiction of humans. In this film the characters are a real portrayal of real human beings with imperfections and weaknesses. McTeague for instance, is portrayed as kind and gentle towards animals yet violent by nature. Marcus, McTeague’s friend and later his foe, is portrayed as a humorous, witty but at the same time scheming and harbors grudges against McTeague. Comparing these characters to the ones in The Birth of a Nation, clearly the characters in Greed are much more realistic, painting a true picture of the complexity of human nature. It is also a break from the then prevailing norm in Hollywood’s films of showing only one-sided nature of the characters, which is either wholly good or wholly bad.
In addition to that, Von Stroheim also showed the psychological development of his characters. The character Trina (Zasu Pitts) is a lovely and harmless girl. However blinded by greed and obsession for more money, she became a miser and was always looking for ways to save her money by making her husband pay for everything. McTeague, on the other hand, loved Trina but later came to hate her for being demanding and misery and eventually murdered her for her wealth. The sophistication of this kind of complex psychological development of the human characters in Greed is nowhere to be found in The Birth of a Nation.
Moving on to cinematic qualities, both films use real environments for shooting. In The Birth of a Nation, Griffith took to the main street in the town of Piedmont, filling it with people and carriages. Von Stroheim however went the extra mile by making sure that the settings in the film would be the same as the ones described in the novel. He used a building in San Francisco, which is the setting in the novel, for shooting and he furnished it to the exact details as described in the novel. Wanting his actors to get used to their working environment, he made them lived in the house. In order to have a realistic visual impact on the audiences, he and his crew traveled to the Sahara desert, under terrible climatic conditions to shoot the famous scene- the Death Valley. Von Stroheim’s effort to reach realism can be compared to that of James Cameron’s rebuilding the ship Titanic (1997), both making their films at the highest cost during their time.
Von Stroheim’s usage of German Expression, as well as low to high shot, gives the film a sophisticated sense compared to the style of Griffith’s. In the scene when the couple (McTeague and Trina) upon returning from a show, was told that Trina had won a lottery prize. In this scene, Von Stroheim positioned his actors and his camera in such a way that the screen was filled. In addition, he also used lighting to cast shadows on the characters and making the atmosphere an entrapping one. The sophisticated use of lighting and different camera angles is crucial in creating a scene’s atmosphere. This is a development in the film industry in enhancing the visual and sensual impact on the audience. Motifs are also employed to further these impacts.
In The Birth of a Nation, whenever the Clansmen appeared, there would be this music announcing their arrival. In this case, this music became a motif in the film. In Greed, the hand is used to enforce the theme of the film, that is possession. Von Stroheim’s use of motifs in his film is clearly more extensive and creative than Griffith’s. Besides using the hand as a motif, he also uses the cat and the birds, symbolizing Marcus scheming to destroy the happiness of McTeague and Trina. In this way, the audience, by relating to these motifs and symbols, would be able to identify the characters and the development of the plot and thus enjoyed a greater sense of visual and sensual aspects.
Another difference between the two films is the existence of irony. In The Birth of a Nation one can never expect evil to triumph over good. Yet in Greed, time and again we experience life’s irony. Just to list a few examples, while Trina was being murdered, there were policemen outside her place and they were not aware of what was happening. The banner with the words “Merry Christmas” was hanging on the walls while the murder took place. Another example is in the Death Valley scene in which Marcus shot the donkey and the water pouch, wasting away his hope for survival. The existence of these ironies in the film allowed the audience to ponder the fact that their lives are filled with ironies as well. This is a breakthrough in film history as it was customary of the filmmakers to make their endings a happy one. Von Stroheim had proven that American audience were ready to make that switch of the “… And they lived happily ever after” kind of ending to one that is tragic or with a twist. This development led others to portray realism, allowing for twisted or tragic endings.
Film history for the first quarter of the century was one that was full of technical and visual breakthroughs. Comparing the two films The Birth of a Nation and Greed allows us to see how much the industry has changed in the short span of nine years. From the traditional norm of portraying insipid characters to the ones that exhibit complex and psychological development, the adoption of motifs and symbols in the film, all are evidences of the development of the film industry. Film realism also became the focus of filmmakers. Efforts made by Griffith and especially Von Stroheim clearly show that filming has transcended from artificial settings to the real environment. The usage of lighting and camera shots in Greed has improved cinematic effects and enhanced visual effects. Lastly the happy ending of The Birth of a Nation compared to the tragic ending of Greed speaks clearly of the changing mood and maturity of the American audience, switching from fairy tales’ ending to one that depicts real life experience.