A Brief History of The 10 Most Significant* 35mm Films Ever Made
A history of notable 35mm films (that’s a film strip 35 millimeters wide, for the uninitiated) is, essentially, a history of commercial film itself. Until the recent advent of digital photography and digital production (here in Chattanooga many of our theaters are affixed with the more ridiculous than impressive “BigDDD,” meaning 3D as well as digital as well as Dolby) every commercial theater in these United States was equipped with a 35mm film projector, and practically every film made in Hollywood and New York was filmed on exactly the same format. Now 35mm films and projectors are becoming, inexorably and irreversibly, a thing of the past.
It was Thomas Alva Edison, famous for his invention of the lightbulb and some of the very first early movie cameras and nickelodeons, who you can thank for 35mm becoming the standard law of the land in the early part of the 20th century. That was the width his cameras and projectors used, which were by far the dominant form, and it was naturally soon the width of film that was cut and shipped to him by the Blair Camera Company in New York, his main supplier. Edison’s attempt to actually patent this kind of film, along with absolutely everything else that wasn’t nailed down when it came to fledgling motion pictures, was struck down in 1902. Soon thereafter all other distributors and filmmakers adopted this same type of stock, usually produced by the Eastman and Kodiak Film companies (who continue to hold a kind of duopoly until this very day).
Here then is a survey-course history of the most important 35mm films ever made. A type of film that once seemed eternal, and is now becoming ever more quickly obsolete.
1903 The Great Train Robbery
Directed by Edwin S. Porter
The shot heard round the world. This is the first narrative motion picture - the first movie to ever tell a complete story. To attempt to do more than merely thrill the audience by its very novelty, but to actually try to take them to another time, another place, and deliver a complete artistic experience.
Produced under the auspices of Thomas Alva Edison (a real villain at the time, sending gangs of hired thugs to disrupt and destroy the films and equipment of other moviemaking companies) but written and directed by Edwin S. Porter, the movie was a sensation at the time. Aside from the thrilling, violent story of a train robbery that goes south when a local posse of citizens mete out harsh justice in the surrounding woods, The Great Train Robbery also featured one of the most distinctive and shocking shots in the history of film.
At either the end or the beginning of the film (it was up to the theater to choose when) one of the bandits raises his pistol and aims it straight at the camera. He then empties his revolver directly into the lens, a terrifying experience for audiences who had never seen anything like it. (To see the shot in this youtube video, go to the end).
Some the technical advances made by The Great Train Robbery include cross cutting (the director shows two different action shots in succession, suggesting simultaneous action), location shooting (in the woods and on the train tracks), and dynamic shooting - not for Edwin S. Porter the camera that simply sat there and filmed. All that ingenuity would have made The Great Train Robbery one of the most difficult films to edit there had ever been - at the time the editing process was done with a razor and a special adhesive, literally cutting and pasting the 35mm film, transferring it from multiple still shots to one unbroken film, until a full reel was completed.
1915 The Birth of a Nation
Directed by DW Griffith Full Feature >
The Birth of a Nation is by far the most controversial film in the history of the medium. By far because it reached a mind-boggling huge audience, completely obliterated every other motion picture before it in terms of scope, story-telling, film grammar (the construction of shots), editing, length, and acclaim. The huge reels needed to show the film added up to over 11,000 feet of 35mm film, a staggering length for the time.
Debuted in 1915 by the visionary D.W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation cost the equivalent of $45 in 2012 dollars to see. Its initial grosses were between $15 and $18 million dollars, or nearly $400 million today. This was absolutely unheard of - not until Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 would the record be broken even in non-adjusted dollars. Remember this was at a time when movie theaters were not on every corner, and certainly no one had ever seen a film that was three hours long - most films were still single reel, about 12 minutes.
Of course the three-hour, technically miraculous, jaw dropping spectacle they saw was a history of the Civil War and Reconstruction seen through the eyes of a southern family, and featured as its centerpiece a stirring horseback rescue by none other than the Klu Klux Klan. Yeah.
The racial attitudes in the film are putrid beyond belief, and were controversial even in 1915, but that didn’t stop the juggernaut from reaching even the hallowed halls of the White House. President Woodrow Wilson was said to have proclaimed, after a private screening, that it was like “History writ with lighting; and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Griffith was so chagrined at the charges of racism that his next film, Intolerance, sought to undo the damage, and his Broken Blossoms was possibly the first cinematic interracial love story.
The Birth of a Nation was done on a scale that was unimaginable at the time. The use of cross-cutting (as can be seen in the chase sequence), closeups, zooms, pans, and pinhole shots are extraordinary - much of what we now absorb and understand about film without thinking (a shot of someone looking in a box followed by a shot of a gun in a box means that person is looking at a gun in a box) was, if not invented with this film, then given its first major debut.
1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Directed by Robert Weine Full Feature >
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the finest and most lasting work of the German Expressionism movement on 35mm film. Other wonderful films, like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, lack the power to produce the same emotions in their viewers that they once did - not so with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which retains its ability to frighten and disturb. (The Somnabulist Wakes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNDaifCMAdI)
The film is recounted from inside the walls of an insane asylum, and the troubled psychic and narrative voice is reflected not only in the story, but in the mise-en-scene - the very sets and shot compositions that produce the “look” of a film. The sets themselves are works of art - they are as twisted, as unfamiliar and as terrifying as the story and the mind of the man who narrates and frames the film. The film represents a great step forward in making movies more than just popular entertainment - into making them art, making them distinct expressions of a director’s point of view. The careers of men like David Lynch, Wes Anderson, and Luis Bunuel are unimaginable without the stunning expressive power of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Don’t watch this one by yourself.
1925 The Battleship Potemkin
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein Full Feature >
Coming to us from Mother Russia in 1925, The Battleship Potemkin is a cinematic landmark because of its radical (at the time) theory on cinema, which meshed particularly well with its radical (Leninist) politics. Sergei Eisenstein is the father of montage - cutting back and forth between two, three, four, or far more different shots in ways that open up intellectual connections for the viewer. Eisenstein believed the great genius of film, the great art of it, was in the editing, and his films are superb demonstrations of his talent and intellectual gifts. (The Odessa Steps: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLEE2UL_N7Q)
The most famous sequence from his greatest film is the Odessa Steps - a long scene in which Tsarist soldiers mercilessly slaughter innocents on a huge stone stairway, with a subplot detailing a mother’s efforts to rally the fleeing proletariat around the dead son she holds in her arms. The cutting in the film is fast paced, jumpy, and in many cases non-linear; Eisenstein was not afraid to lose his audience by cutting to and from the strict “plot” of a basic sequence or bit of action. The product of this new way of editing film is one of the most exciting, breathtaking scenes in the history of film. It has been copied dozens, if not hundreds of times by just as many directors and producers, perhaps most memorably in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables.
The Battleship Potemkin is also notable for its lack of a true protagonist - the characters in the film are more notable for their membership in a class that acts as one.
1927 The Jazz Singer
Directed by Alan Crosland Blue Skyies >
The Jazz Singer is notable only for its technical accomplishment - it is the very first “talkie,” a movie with synchronized dialogue. While some other films had had scores, or even crowd noise effects, there had never been spoken dialogue before. The audiences who flocked to The Jazz Singer had to wait 17 minutes into the film to hear them, but the very first words heard in movie theater that emerged from the 35mm film itself were “Wait a minute, wait a minute - you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”
At the time sound was still not embedded directly into the 35mm film, as it is today (and was by the 1930s) - it was stored on a phonograph, which was synchronized with the film projector itself.
1929 Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog)
Directed by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali Full Feature >
(The Eye!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpBI2LPX2Ic)
Until the debut of Un Chien Andalou in 1929, each major film and each short, however daring or inventive, had either told a story or shown something occurring in reality. Even the most radical films, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Battleship Potemkin, never strayed from the bonds of narrative. Not so with this eye-opening (excuse the pun) picture.
Conceived and directed by none other than Salvador Dali (the famous surrealist painter) and Luis Bunuel (who would go on to forge one of cinema's greatest and most avant-garde careers), Un Chien Andalou is completely divorced from story, reason, consequences, time, and traditionally meaningful film grammar. It is a completely emotional and intellectual exercise, with the power to shock if not to make clear. In several of the theaters where it was shown the film caused a full scale riot on the part of the customers, who felt not only cheated but abused. On the night of the premier Bunuel filled his pockets with stones as he approached the theater, mindful that they may come in handy when the crowd inevitably turned on him. He himself played the music (in those days house organists were employed to give the films a “soundtrack”), which was Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod,” as well as a few tangos.
Here is the first truly surrealist film, the first film that took the medium about as far as it could possibly go. Some of the images in the film, like the ants crawling out of the hand and the (spoiler alert) sliced eyeball, are still imprinted in the consciousness of world cinema and art.
1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Directed by Various - Produced by Walt Disney Full Feature >
(Mirror, Mirror: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9GJtM9lN-I)
While Walt Disney had been at the forefront of the American movie business for years before the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it was this cinematic accomplishment that vaulted him into the stratosphere, and defined for decades the full power of what animation could do on a major scale. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the first ever full length cel-animated picture, (which was of course embedded in 35mm film) as well as the first to be produced entirely in color. The effect it had an audiences in 1937 is difficult to calculate - here was a movie unencumbered by the limitations of traditional filmmaking that retained the cinemas power to grip, move, and enchant. Full color, (full sound was standard by 1937) the film was and remains a great classic - the first entry on this list which stands up to the sophisticated modern standards of technical proficiency.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs shattered existing box office records for animation (and remains one of the top grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation), and was so stunning (and yet so outside of the box) that the Academy Awards created an award out of thin air - an Honorary Academy Award for being "a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field.” None other than Sergei Eisenstein praised it as among the greatest films of all time.
Shooting full length animated films had never been done before, and one of the reasons was the incredible amount of time and labor that it took. The process for actually putting the animations onto 35mm film took forever, each single frame being composed of multiple cels that had to be stacked on top of each other and shot one at a time. Then the process has to be repeated 24 times to achieve just a single second of 35mm film.
1951 / 1954 / 1955 A Streetcar Named Desire / On the Waterfront / The Wild One
Directed by Elia Kazan / Laslo Benedek
(Marlon Brando Meets Scarlett O’Hara: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UqhXBSW0Zns) (Stella: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1A0p0F_iH8) (The Glove: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHtJUWO7yeA) (On a Steel Horse I Ride: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCENBce_dls) (James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7r8LnJTMqZ8)
By the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 the technical precision of Hollywood filmmaking had been updated about as far as it would go until the advent of huge budgets, special effects and CGI would transform the industry yet again the in 70s, 80s and 90s. Similarly, storytelling genres began to take clear forms that are maintained to the present day: Mystery/Horror/Science Fiction, Westerns/Action/Gangster Pictures, Dramas, Romantic Comedy, Film Noir, Slapstick, Farce, etc. In the opinion of this writer the next major advance in filmmaking would come less from the men and women behind the camera and more from the new school of actors appearing in front, led primarily by a young, impossibly beautiful method actor named Marlon Brando.
While it is James Dean’s tortured (and by today’s standards overwrought) performance in Rebel Without a Cause that is often remembered as the birth of this new kind of acting verve (because it connected so strongly with young cinema goers and inspired actors like Dennis Hopper and Dustin Hoffman, who would go on to front the revolutionary Hollywood golden age of the 1970s), Brando debuted the method four years earlier in his definitive, masterful performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brute sexual charisma had never been (has never been?) expressed so nakedly and completely before - this was wild, edge of your seat acting, and it created a fundamental change in the way actors were trained, audiences entertained, and movies written and directed. Brando pulled the trick again in On the Waterfront, mastering both speech (“I coulda been a contender”) and physicality (the improvised-on-the-spot and still wonderful conversation where he picks up and plays with Eva Marie Saint’s glove).
But it wasn’t until the unremarkable “youth picture” The Wild One (1953), featuring Brando as the leader of a frightening motorcycle gang (“hopped up on vitamin pills”) that his dangerous style connected with a young audience more than ready to rumble. James Dean would follow it up two years later in Rebel Without a Cause, and the cinematic youth movement was underway and altogether unstoppable.
1959 / 1960 The 400 Blows / Breathless (Les Quatre Cents Coups, A Bout de Souffle)
Directed by Francois Truffaut / Jean Luc Godard
(Antoine’s Questioning: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyBvPcPFXyc) (Freeze Frame: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9I-gsap0po) (Enough Games Today: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rzd-RQSeTLI) (Jump Cuts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ov4mQJIHhc)
“Sometimes I’d tell them the truth and they still wouldn’t believe me, so I prefer to lie.” - The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups)
“Right! I’ll count to 8. If by 8 you haven’t smiled, I’ll strangle you.” - Breathless (A Bout de Souffle)
By the 1950s Hollywood films had started to become stagnant. Even with brilliant performances in the early part of the decade by actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean, the stories and genre exercises were growing a bit stale. It would take a loose collective of passionate French cinephiles to shake American filmmaking out of its complacency, recognize and celebrate the geniuses already at work within the system (like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Walter Huston, Nicholas Ray, and Howard Hawks), and whose original, high-wire shooting and editing techniques matched the jazz-like loose-limbed virtuosity of their screenwriting, performance, and direction.
The first bomb to drop was Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows), which debuted in 1959. Shot in the streets of Paris with handheld cameras by director Francois Truffaut, it told the story of a rough and tumble, aimless, thoroughly modern youth. The next great film came the next year, 1960. A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) introduced the world to Jean Luc Godard, a man whose body of work qualifies him as much as anyone to the title “Greatest of All Time.” Breathless pushed the freed-up editing, acting and direction of The 400 Blows even further, and birthed post-modern cinema. It’s a one-two punch for the ages, and borderline miraculous that the two men created such titanic classics on their very first outing.
Truffaut and Godard were among the brightest lights of the popular intellectual movement embodied by the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema, the pages of which bore the first descriptions of the auteur theory and a dozen bylines soon to become great directors in their own right: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Cocteau, and Bresson to name a few. Together they would be called the French New Wave, and their films would crash ashore on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts alike, changing things for good and for always. The possibility of complete artistic and moral freedom, and the very idea that the director of a film is its author every bit as much as a writer is the author of a work of literature, became fixed concepts in the minds of cinephiles everywhere. For that we can thank the French, and add modern 35mm film to their long and indispensable list of inventions, along with wine, food, and sex.
1967 Bonnie and Clyde
class="interior-page-copy"Directed by Arthur Penn Ain't You Ashamed? >
(Blaze of Glory: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrmUpso_xT8)
While the giants of the French New Wave prepared the ground with a full scale assault beginning in 1959, it wasn’t until Bonnie and Clyde, possibly the most seminal and significant film in the history of modern American filmmaking, that the lessons and techniques they developed were put fully to use in a Hollywood film.
Bonnie and Clyde came into theaters with a whimper, buried under an avalanche of hysterical bad press that labeled it intolerably violent, oversexed, amoral and in the worst possible taste. Aged reviewers and out-of-touch pundits found voice in the reliably middle-brow Bosley Crowther:
“It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie...such ridiculous, camp-tinctured travesties of the kind of people these desperadoes were and of the way people lived in the dusty Southwest back in those barren years might be passed off as candidly commercial movie comedy, nothing more, if the film weren't reddened with blotches of violence of the most grisly sort... This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth. And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr Penn and Mr Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap."
Of course it was this very morally adventurous (but quite serious) subject matter and deliberately avant-garde tone that made the film the masterpiece that it was. And a funny thing happened, no matter how often the Crowthers of the world dismissed it - Bonnie and Clyde kept playing, and playing and playing. Audiences, mostly young people, flooded the theaters and drive-ins where it was showing, keeping it on the road after far more than a year of release. The storytelling was as thrilling and new as the subject matter, the performers were brilliant and idiosyncratic in their roles, and while Arthur Penn would never be confused as Scorsese’s equal, his direction was assured, unique, and most importantly daring.
The incredible flowering of talent (directors, writers, actors and critics) that would blossom in Hollywood almost immediately upon the success of this film can be directly attributed to its tremendous and unexpected success - without Bonnie and Clyde there is no Easy Rider, The Graduate, Badlands, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, M.A.S.H., Harold and Maude, Five Easy Pieces, Raging Bull. No Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Elliot Gould, Christopher Walken, Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino, John Cazale as we came to know them. No Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Milos Forman. In short, nothing of what we now consider to be classic Hollywood, the age when a huge percentage of the greatest films in American history were made, would be possible.
Pauline Kael, another critic whose career in large part was due to the film, sums it up nicely:
“‘Bonnie and Clyde’ is the most excitingly American American movie since ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours—not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours.”
*Not the Best, not the Greatest, not the most Successful or Memorable - simply the most Significant in that they moved the medium forward, and made essential contributions to what movies (and of course the 35mm film format) would become.