Posted: November 7th, 2023
Major Themes in Early Cinema
A timeless question in cinematography and production is what makes a movie great. Different elements interplay and work together to give the audience a feeling and experience that is beyond the ordinary. Amongst all the elements is the central and unifying concept. The theme conjures a universal human experience and is exemplified in a film’s dialogue, music and plot. Themes are as old as cinema. However, themes introduced in the early years are very different to current ones. The ability to shape social movements at the time made themes highly popular, explaining why producers were more broad minded then compared to contemporary film. The earliest films contained many common themes based on virtue and values. For example, innocence and good versus evil were some of the common film themes. They were popular because they were influenced by some of the social movements of the time, and they provide certain purposes like entertainment. These common themes have affected future film industry that they are still contained in many films nowadays.
Common themes like innocence and Good vs. Evil are delivered in early films like The Wizard of Oz and King Kong. The world was fascinated by the beast that is King Kong, because it was the first creation where an animal exhibited human emotions. The production is full of happiness, a dash of hope and belief. For instance, Dorothy and her companions show it all to us through eyes of innocence and wonder. The production is filled with fabulous visuals and stage designs (Foster paragraph 3). King Kong was released after the Great Depression, helping bring back hope concerning America’s future. Wizard of Oz used the same thematic approach as King Kong. The film centers around a young innocent woman on a quest with her adorable dog. The Black and White magic used in the film represents the Christian fight of good over evil. Since early cinema, most thematic takes on good v. evil end up with former being triumphant.
Themes in early cinema were portrayed through the character’s dialogue and stage settings. By the 1930s, the United States and the world had undergone massive social changes, with women able to vote and the 1929 stock market collapse. American film quickly reflected these realities (Anderson paragraph 4). For instance, King Kong is set up on a deteriorating urban setting. There is a high unemployment rate and the youth have resorted to crime. There are several scenes of people fighting as a consequence of widespread poverty. King Kong also used an abnormal love story and sexual innuendo between a woman and a beast to poke holes on the middle-class understanding of morality. Wizard of Oz equally used its characters and music to develop themes. The film’s musical score is designed to inspire the audience to believe that somewhere beyond the rainbow is a better place. A person simply has to work hard enough to find it. The approach reiterated the theme of hope, crucial for audiences after the great depression.
Themes in early cinema influenced and were influenced by social movements present at the time. According to Anderson, by the peak of the Depression in 1933, almost twenty-five percent of the country was unemployed, while even more people just made ends meet (paragraph 3). The Plow that Broke the Plains is an example of a film highlighting the social realities of the Great Plains after the depression. There is evidence of the government using movies to influence public sentiment. During the First World War, several propaganda movies were sponsored by governments and health agencies. For instance, The Fly Pest (1909) is a film warning about illnesses carried by houseflies (History Matters paragraph 3). The Red cross commissioned the movie to influence how people maintain household and bodily hygiene. The connection between themes and social movements contributed to the emergence of purposeful film narration.
Themes in early cinema touched on human morality, explaining the causes and implications of dominant human feelings, including hate, love and revenge. Transferred from Shakespearean plays, several movies used vengeance quite successfully in the early years of film making. Consider the example of The Lady Eve (1941). The narrative centers on Jean, a female out for blood after her dashing millionaire suddenly dumps her. Despite being a comedy, the film is a classic depiction of two characters falling in and out of love with each other while simultaneously attempting to betray the other. Sacrifice was another common theme touching on human morality. Famous characters, such as Charlie Chaplin benefited heavily from using sacrifice in his silent films. Chaplin embraced the message that dignity, integrity and a good heart are key to overcoming life’s hardships. Many silent films reiterated the message, assuring audiences that goodness in the face of a bleak world is not only possible but also commendable.
All films, including fictional ones, contain ideas about life, society, nature and human morality. Good themes contain common elements of the human experience. Early cinema was able to produce great films by focusing on simple themes. Common messages included good v. evil, human innocence, hope and morality. As Hollywood grew in popularity, governments familiarized with the power of media to shape culture and society. Movie themes correlated with dominant social developments. The ability to draw attention to sociopolitical issues is why cinema played a critical role during the two World Wars and the freedom movement. Hollywood films might have been for entertainment, but there has never been any form of popular culture that did not include themes and messages. In the end, films can only appeal if the audiences are familiar with the conveyed values and messages in movies.
Anderson, W. (n.d.). The Great Depression’s influence American film. School Work Helper. https://schoolworkhelper.net/the-great-depressions-influence-american-film/, Accessed 4 July 2022.
Foster, Joani. Dorothy and Companions: Innocence and Wonder in Wizard of Oz. The Voice, 22 November 2018, https://thevoice.us/dorothy-and-companions-innocence-and-wonder-in-wizard-of-oz/, Accessed 4 July 2022.
Who Made the Film and Why? History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/film/question3.html, Accessed 4 July 2020.
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