Early Films and Their Impact on Society

I know this post has nothing to do with “traveling” but I have been asked to include some of my ideas about film history for one of my younger followers who is interested in film studies. We had been talking about early films and their impact on society so I thought this would be of interest to him, and maybe to you. Films do make an impact because pop culture is such a driving force for so many within our society. The impact they have, however, is in merchandising, catch phrases, depicting history, inspiring exploration of other worlds, etc., but they rarely inspire an entire society, or a section within that society, to change their views enough to act out in opposition to their normal behaviors. Films make people think. Films shed light on issues already present. Films bring people together to make them feel proud or embarrassed of some aspect within their society or another society. But to say that films “change” those within a society and should be blamed for the social ills that plague that society is just not factual in statement. This post strives to make that point. The questions concerning the impact, positive or negative, of film and television, and now the internet, on our society began with the advent of film itself. Enjoy!

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
Starring Joan Crawford
Early films began as a novelty that drew millions of people to the nickelodeons from every demographic group. Because a nickelodeon was an early movie theater, which, if described, was simply a room containing a few folding chairs and a piece of white cloth tacked to the wall, Americans became very interested in experiencing the new and inexpensive form of entertainment. The working class, who, at the turn of the century, were finding it difficult to make ends meet, were unable to afford the Broadway and Vaudeville shows that had previously been the main source of entertainment for the upper-middle and elite classes. Nickelodeons proved successful because the middle class could afford the low price of a nickel to see a movie. The early filmmakers, as well as the filmgoers, could never have imagined what would develop from the subsequent inventions that propelled movies into the biggest and fastest growing source of entertainment of the twentieth century, not to mention the enormous opportunity to make money.

There were issues at the time, however, in the perception people had concerning the impact the movies were having on society. Some critics of early films argue that film inspired social unrest and disorder–that they were dangerous to the stability of American society, but others argue the opposite saying that film encouraged American compliancy and blind adherence to the status quo. Few films of the period fit firmly into either argument, but there are clear examples that seem to be guilty, at least on the surface, of the analysis made by the critics on both sides. However, early films did not inspire social unrest, nor did they encourage compliancy. Instead, early films depicted the societal issues causing concern and the changes in social morality. When studying the first three decades, one cannot blame the films for social problems and cultural shifts because they were only mirroring that which was already present within society.

One film that appears to be guilty of the critics argument and tends to be blamed for the racial issues within society at the time is Birth of a Nation (1915) directed by D. W. Griffith. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan during the simultaneous release of the film makes the argument that the film caused social unrest to appear true. However, even though the rebirth of the KKK became a dangerous and destructive part of American society, the resurgence of that group and the ensuing social unrest did not occur because viewers were inspired into action by the physical act of viewing the film, nor was the message within the film responsible. The responsibility for the resurrection of the KKK was an undercurrent of bigotry already present within society. One can argue that the film Birth of a Nation was fuel to a fire that was already burning, but not the cause of the fire. Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, professors of sociology, argue, “between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the Great Depression” there were “at least 2,462 African-American men, women and children [who] met their deaths in the grasp of southern mobs, comprised mostly of whites.” They continue by pointing out “radical racism and mob violence peaked during the 1890s in a surge of terrorism that did not dissipate until well into the twentieth century.” Although some historians argue against this, one can argue that the peak of this bigoted violence took place twenty-five years before the release of Birth of a Nation.

One might ask how a film can be solely responsible for the social unrest and disorder created by the KKK when, clearly, the problem had already existed? The social unrest was not created by the masses of people who viewed the film, but by a few who made conscious decisions to act from a foundation of hate that existed within them already and they could now commit unspeakable horrors from under a sheet aiding them in anonymity. Granted, the suggestion of the sheets could very well have come from the film itself, but the behavior of those hiding under the sheets was an issue that preceded the film.

Admittedly, the film is disgraceful by today’s standards of what is right and wrong in the way in which it recounted a historical period and the clear message of bigotry, but at the time of its release Birth of a Nation was the newest form of film making anyone had ever seen. It comprised all of the techniques used by other filmmakers and became a hit at the time and a source for studying early filmmaking for future generations. According to Robert Sklar, professor of cinema, “Birth of a Nation had taught the new middle-class and elite audiences to appreciate movies with close-ups, swift cutting and other advanced cinematic techniques.” The audience at large cheered the film and may have done so for either the new filmmaking techniques or the message presented and quite possibly a little of both. Regardless, when the film ended the majority of viewers went home, went on with their lives as before, and created no social unrest within their societies.

To lay blame on movies for social ills, society creates a target to focus their attention rather than looking at the real issues. As with Birth of a Nation, people lacked the willingness to deal with the issue of racism. Films became the focus of blame for the racist acts of violence that were occurring and increasing at shocking rates within their society. There were other reasons early films became the focus of blame. Those who wanted to find culpability concerning the problems with their children, for example, looked to the movies, which according to Sklar, was “the prime cause and explanation for the perennial adult complaint that children were not behaving the way they should.” Parents would never have admitted they were not controlling their own children. There had to be another reason they were uncontrollable and some people determined that the new media was the culprit.

Other than looking at film as the reason for society’s problems, one must consider the decisions made on the part of the filmmaker concerning content in their attempt to make money. The movies were both entertainment and business. Because of this, one is able to see the possible reasons for the depiction of certain aspects of society, such as the portrayal of women, which may have been what led some critics to believe that film encouraged compliancy and blind adherence to status quo.

Looking at this period in history, women had always been the model of Victorian morality, but after the suffrage movement, young women realized they could break free from the traditional bonds of womanhood and become another kind of woman, different from their mothers. According to Molly Haskell, author and film critic, “…before suffrage, women had begun to enter the professions and, as the decade dawned, were choosing to do so.” She continued saying that, “By the twenties, plays and novels were increasingly focusing on the “new woman,” some to encourage her, others to satirize her.” It seems reasonable to assume that there were forces driving women in the direction of change, toward a freedom in their behaviors that was shocking in its day. Prohibition changed society in many ways and was believed to be a source of all things bad. There was a change in sexual attitudes, in that the ways of thinking about sex outside of marriage were more open. Additionally, there was a major shift in consumerism because the economy was improving and for the first time young people were making their own money. The automobile gave those who could afford them, and those who knew someone who owned one, a sense of freedom like no generation before. Many women were also continuing to hang onto their traditional way of being, unable to step away from the Victorian-era beliefs that a woman’s place was in the home and as the model of morality. Filmmakers saw all of this change as a new opportunity to capitalize and they set out to depict the new attitude, behaviors, and style as examples of the new society within their films. They began looking to find examples of the very embodiment of the “new woman” and the flapper began popping up everywhere. She even made the cover of Life. Colleen Moore, Clara Bow, and Joan Crawford were all representatives of the flapper within early films.

Films seemed to portray the flapper as the girl you did not want to be, based on societal morals. This attitude was obvious in the film Our Dancing Daughters (1928). Even though the depiction of the two main characters were opposite of each other in their moral character than their behaviors demonstrated throughout the film, the director chose to wait until toward the end of the film to divulge to the audience that the flapper could be a good and wholesome girl behind her wild girl behavior. Was the early filmmaker trying to hold women in society to the status quo of the former Victorian morality? Could it simply have been a way to gain ticket sales from one group without alienating the other? The flapper would come to see herself portrayed as the rebel and the Victorian woman would come to see the flapper put back into her place. This was box office gold for the filmmaker.

Cops (1922) Starring Buster Keaton
Certainly the film industry began as an all boys club with the initial exception of Mary Pickford. The social attitudes toward women were present within films partly because of the way society believed women were not equal on any level to men and therefore, could not contribute anything more than making babies and taking care of their husband’s needs. Sadly, women also believed this to be true about themselves far longer than they should have, but regardless, women were not depicted in films in such a way as to force them back into their place. Early films just showed women to be what society said they were. The way women were behaving and somewhat contributing in society is how the camera portrayed them. Female characters of all behaviors and temperaments saw some screen time in the early films. In the Buster Keaton film Cops (1922), Keaton’s character has a girlfriend who was shown to be the stronger of the two characters, much more in charge within the relationship than he was. This was not the Victorian-era woman. The female character within the film emasculated Keaton’s character. That emasculation contributed to the comedy elements within the film and was not an attempt on the part of the filmmaker to encourage women to do or be anything outside of “acceptable” within their society. Not all films depicted women in the way society believed at the time they should behave so the argument does not ring true that films were encouraging compliancy and status quo.

The first three decades of the movies produced films that clearly showed aspects of society that were beautiful, ugly, traditional, progressive, and laughable. There was a contradiction now and again between what films showed society to be and what those viewing the films believed it to be. Early films were mirror images that allowed those within society to see themselves as they actually appeared, but the effort was lost on many to be sure. The purpose of film was not to teach society how to behave. The purpose of the film was to entertain. The motive of the filmmaker was money most of the time and art some of the time. Although some have tried to blame the movies for societal ills, and still do today, films were not responsible for the social issues that plagued this period in film history.

1. Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern
Lynchings, 1882-1930. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 17.

2. Ibid.

3. Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies, 2nd ed.
(New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 71-72.

4. Ibid., 124

5. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, 2nd ed.
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 44.

6. Ibid.


Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. 2nd ed.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. 2nd ed.
New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Tolnay, Stewart E., and E.M. Beck. A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern
Lynchings, 1882-1930. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Suggested further reading:

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time
by Melvyn Stokes
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Published: 2007

5 thoughts on “Early Films and Their Impact on Society

  1. Once again, you have written a wonderful piece….very insightful. After seeing so many so-so movies filled with a lot of language and violence, I do truly believe the film makers of today are in it for the money and don’t necesessarily think they are depicting life as it really is….I lived in the OC for years and never saw any of those flaming car crashes they depict in the movies nor do I hear the off-color language as often as they depict….maybe I’m just not at the right place at the right time and not hanging out with the right people! (wish I could write this as eloquently as you write what you do!!)

    1. Thank you, Jan. I appreciate that you read my blog. I appreciate your comments. They make me think. Here is what came to mind after reading your comment. Yes, I, too lived in California and never personally witnessed that which is depicted within films. With that being said, however, it does not mean that something in the way in which life there is represented is not truthful, but rather it is embellished to make it more exciting to the viewer, yes? Would you agree? I look at the ways in which films depict slums…it is not that slums do not exist, but rather, I question whether they being portrayed truthfully and are not being embellished? I agree with you that if you are not in the places or interacting with the people who live the lives represented in films, then it is hard to know what is factual and what is embellished. As a film-lover, and I know you are, do you think about the messages you are presented with by the director when you are watching a film? Since studying film, I find watching films so much more fascinating now than ever before. I hope to post other blogs about films and history and would love to continue this dialog with you further. Melissa

  2. Thank you for this blog posting. I enjoyed reading it as your writing was both informative and intersting. While films should not be held responsible for the social issues that plague our country, they definitely help perpetuate popular race and gender stereotypes. Birth of a Nation is an excellent example of a film that reinforced and maintained age old sterotypes that depicted African-American men as lazy, dangerous and violent individuals only interested harming chaste white women. Although I am not familiar with the other films you discussed I am definitely interested in seeing them now.

    1. Yes, the perpetuation of stereotypes is prevelant in most films. Television also engages in this same practice of reinforcing negative stereotypes. Films, because they are so important within our pop culture, in addition to television, have an enormous responsibility to ensure strong, positive messages and strong images are presented. The reason that both industries always fall short in this effort is for the simple fact that society would be uncomfortable looking at the truth of who they are and nothing would sell….it all boils down to money really. From the beginning of time, one must make another feel less-than to make himself feel more-than and when films and television reinforce negative stereotypes, that is exactly what is happening….they are making one ethnic group or one social group or one gender group feel less-than society as a whole. Thank you for your comment! I value your feedback! Melissa

  3. This is a great piece of writing. I do really enjoy your articles. As usual, I have many questions and many comments – too many for here.

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