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This Week in Film History: Snow White, Chaplin & more!

There are three key technical film facts that most audiences don't know. The first? Silent films were never silent. They always had a piano, an orchestra or some kind of musical accompaniment, and sometimes even a live narrator explaining what was happening in each scene. Catch The Artist to see what we mean. The second? The speed of films varied. The first cameras and projectors were cranked by hand and this determined the speed of the action of the film (roughly 16 frames of film per second, which accounts for its jerky motion). If there was a chase scene happening on screen, the projectionist would crank the projector faster to speed up the action. When sound was introduced to film, the speed of the camera significantly changed and became permanent at 24 frames of film per second. Lastly? Films made at the turn of the century (or even before) were always as sharp and clear as the films made today. The reason they appear so out of shape is because either the films or the negatives have deteriorated or the only existing print of the film is a copy of a copy of a copy and so on.

So take those facts for a run and impress your friends.

As Cineplex celebrates 100 years of movie memories over the next twelve months, we’ll take a look back at some key moments, classic stars and technological milestones from each week in cinematic history, ones that helped shape and define the modern film industry into the memory-making marvel we view it as today.

So dig in with our fourth look back! This week's edition looks at Snow White, Truffaut, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and more!


February 4, 1938: Walt Disney’s first full-length feature production

Snow WhiteBased on the famous fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm and influenced greatly by German expressionism (particularly films like 1922’s Nosferatu and 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-length animated feature film in motion picture history, the first produced in full colour, and the first to be produced by Walt Disney. Opening to unanimous praise and standing ovations, the movie’s innovative use of story, colour, animation, sound, direction, and background inspired directors like Federico Fellini and Orson Welles (whose opening shot in Citizen Kane of a castle at night with one lighted window is hauntingly similar to the first shot of the Wicked Queen’s castle in Snow White).

Producing a feature-length animated film in Technicolor was almost as unheard of at the time. Walt Disney bet his entire future on its success, borrowing $1.5 million to make the film. His risk paid off when the film grossed $8 million, a staggering sum during the Great Depression and the highest grossing film up to that point. Disney earned an honourary Academy Award for his pioneering achievement. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first film to release a soundtrack as well as merchandise in conjunction with a movie.

February 5, 1919: United Artists is formed

United ArtistsDuring the golden age of Hollywood, studios often had long-term binding contracts over both actors and directors. This proprietary ownership severely limited career opportunities. It wasn't until three of the biggest stars of the silent film era, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and pioneering director D.W. Griffith sought to gain more financial and artistic control over their films that the "star system" was challenged. On February 5, 1919, these four joined forces to create their own film studio, United Artists Corporation (UA). UA gained prestige in Hollywood due to the success of the films of its stars, along with the work of big names like Buster Keaton, Rudolph Valentino, and Gloria Swanson and veteran producers Joseph Schenck, Samuel Goldwyn, and Howard Hughes who all contributed to the rapidly growing studio.

UA went public in 1957 and became a subsidiary of the TransAmerica Corporation a decade later. Between the late 1950s and late 1970s, UA released a slew of successful films including Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), West Side Story (1961), the James Bond and Pink Panther film franchises, Midnight Cowboy (1969), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Rocky (1976) and Annie Hall (1977).

In the 1980s, MGM bought the company and merged to become MGM/UA Entertainment. Rain Man (1988) was that studio’s biggest success. In 1992, the French bank Credit Lyonnais acquired the corporation and changed its name back to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. In 2006, MGM gave Tom Cruise and his production partner, Paula Wagner, control over the United Artists production slate in the spirit of its founders. Cruise and Wagner released their first co-production with UA, Lions for Lambs, in 2007.

February 6, 1932: The birth of François Truffaut and "Auteur Theory"

TruffautFrançois Truffaut was one of the founding fathers of the French New Wave movement in cinema. The term French New Wave (la nouvelle vague) came from the influential Paris film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, founded in 1951 by André Bazin. Bazin, along with a fellow critics Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol – who were to become the major directors of the New Wave – verbally skewered the most artistically respected French filmmakers of the day. They favoured the emotional and psychological experience of a film over logic and aesthetics. New Wave was a self-reflexive rejection of traditional structure. These films often lacked goal-oriented protagonists, typically ended ambiguously, and had a very casual look to them. Influenced heavily by the Neorealism movement in Italy at the time, and in opposition to studio filmmaking, the New Wave directors took to filming on-location with natural and available light, and using hand held cameras primarily used for documentaries.

Truffaut is notable for coining the term “auteur theory” in his 1954 essay entitled, “Une certaine tendance du cinema francais” (“A Certain Tendency in French Cinema”). He maintained that the director was the “author” of his work and that his films should be a medium of personal artistic expression. Many have criticized this theory, claiming that the director is only a piece in the filmmaking process.

Truffaut’s biggest success was his 1959 feature film debut, Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows.) Influencing filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel, Richard Lester and Norman Jewison, The 400 Blows is one of the defining films of the French New Wave and was widely acclaimed, winning numerous awards, including the Best Director Award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. Post-New Wave, Truffaut found commercial success by maintaining his independence with the formation of his own production company, Les Films du Carrosse, named in homage to Renoir’s Le Carrosse d’or (1952). His major cinematic influences were American film noir, the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir. Truffaut was also one of the main stars in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), where he played scientist Claude Lacombe.

February 7, 1914: The transformation of Charlie Chaplin

Charlie ChaplinThe Tramp (or The Little Tramp), Chaplin's most memorable on-screen character and a recognized cinematic icon during the silent film era, came to define the legend. Inspiring the likes of Mr. Bean and Wall-E, the Tramp was a bumbling, good-hearted man-child most famously presented as a vagrant. On February 7, 1914, the Tramp made his big screen appearance in the Keystone Studio produced 11-minute silent film Kid Auto Races at Venice, in which the Tramp goes to a children’s cart race held in Venice, California, and interferes. The film was an immediate hit and the Tramp was a sensation, elevating Chaplin to one of the most famous actors in Hollywood.

Born on April 16, 1889, in England, Charlie Chaplin became a professional performer by the age of 10. In 1908, he joined a comedy troupe, gaining notice for his portrayal of a character known as “The Drunk.” Chaplin was signed to Keystone Studios (famous for its short slapstick comedy films) when the troupe was touring the United States in 1913. While Chaplin’s first film with Keystone wasn’t as funny as expected, he was given another chance. Just before production began on Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914, which would have been the Tramp’s first appearance if it had not been released after Kid Auto Races at Venice), Chaplin reportedly combed through the Keystone costume closets, randomly piecing together the now-legendary look of the Tramp: baggy pants, tight coat, small hat, large shoes, and a brush-like mustache over his lip.

When the silent film era came to a close, Chaplin was hesitant to keep playing the Tramp. He officially retired the character in what is often cited as the last silent film, Modern Times (1936). The film ended with the Tramp walking down an endless highway toward the horizon, signaling the true end of the first era of cinema and of its most popular character. Watch the scene below:

February 8, 1932: Film composer John Williams is born

John WilliamsJohn Williams is the Academy Award-winning conductor and composer of some of the most famous and memorable film scores ever written. He is responsible for the immediately recognizable themes from Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Jaws, Superman, Harry Potter, E.T., and many more. He scored Family Plot (1976), Alfred Hitchcock's final film, and is the father of composer and former Toto lead singer Joseph Williams. The two collaborated on the song performed by the alien band in Jabba’s palace in 1983’s Return of the Jedi (which was replaced for the Special Edition).

Born with music in his blood, Williams was the son of a CBC Radio percussionist. After moving to L.A. in 1948 from his hometown in Long Island, New York, the young jazz musician began experimenting with arranging tunes. At 19, he premiered his first original composition, a piano sonata. After attending UCLA, Los Angeles City College, and the prestigious Juilliard School, Williams found work with the Hollywood studios as a piano player. At age 24, he became a staff arranger at Columbia and then at 20th Century Fox, orchestrating for golden age conductors like Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, and Henry Mancini. This led to composing jobs for television, notably "Gilligan’s Island" (1964), "Lost in Space" (1965), and his Emmy-winning scores for "Heidi" (1968) and "Jane Eyre" (1970), and finally original music for the big screen, in films like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974) and The Towering Inferno (1974). His score for The Reivers (1969) caught the ear of a young director by the name of Steven Spielberg, then preparing for his first feature, The Sugarland Express (1974). After reuniting with Spielberg on Jaws (1975), Williams won his first Academy Award for Original Score. The two established themselves as a blockbuster duo and Spielberg soon recommended Williams to close friend, George Lucas, for a little independent feature called Star Wars.

February 9, 1960: Joanne Woodward earns the first star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Joanne WoodwardJoanne Woodward, best known for her Oscar-winning performance in 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve and her longtime marriage to Paul Newman, was the first of eight honourees chosen from a hat to receive the inaugural stars dedicated on the historic walkway on the northwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue during the official groundbreaking ceremony. Construction continued for the next 16 months, and by the time it was over more than 1,500 actors, musicians, and filmmakers had received stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The Walk of Fame was originally conceived to encourage redevelopment of Hollywood Boulevard. E. M. Stuart, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s volunteer president in 1953, is credited with creating the idea as a means to maintain the glory and glamour of the motion picture community. In February 1956, a prototype was unveiled for the Walk of Fame, featuring a caricature of an honouree inside a blue star on a brown background. Caricatures proved too expensive and difficult to execute in brass with the technology available at the time, and the brown and blue motif was vetoed by legendary real estate developer C.E. Toberman (known as “Mr. Hollywood”) because the colours clashed with a new building he was developing on Hollywood Boulevard.

While it is unclear where the final design originated, the Hollywood Walk of Fame became an official landmark in 1978. Today, the Walk of Fame lines both sides of Hollywood Boulevard with new stars being added regularly. Woodward’s star is located at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard.

Stay tuned next week for more This Week In Film History...

Photo credit (top): Renton History Museum. All rights reserved.

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