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Under their influence

Movie Milestones

May 21, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Think of the movie business for a moment not as an entertainment enterprise but as an enormous cargo ship. Turning on a dime is not this vessel's specialty; even attempting to change direction is a herculean task that may take a while to show results.

But there have been moments in Hollywood history when the opposite has happened, when lightning has struck and films have come around that so shattered existing paradigms that change was inevitable. The question is: Which films are they?

For one of the secrets that historians would rather not talk about is that their field is as much about theories as it is about facts, as much about suppositions concerning significant events as it is about places and dates.

What that means specifically is that no two lists of 10 films that changed Hollywood are going to be the same. The one offered here is no exception: It has some obvious choices and some decidedly eccentric ones.

Other people will point to different changes as being more important, or to different films to emphasize the changes I've identified. It matters not; that's just the way the game is played.

It's also important to point out that naming a film as one that changed Hollywood doesn't necessarily mean it was any good or that audiences would enjoy watching it today. Something influential is not necessarily perennially entertaining, and vice versa.

In chronological order, my list is:

The Great Train Robbery


Shot in New Jersey, not Hollywood (which was still a few years away from movie production), this Edward S. Porter effort is considered, along with the director's earlier "Life of an American Fireman," to be the first film to make creative use of editing by cutting back and forth between parallel actions. An argument could also be made for it as the new medium's first western, its first major hit and the source of its first memorable shock moment: A cowboy in close-up fires a pistol directly at the audience. Not bad for 12 minutes of screen time.



Though we tend to self-centeredly think that all significant and influential films are American, that has been far from the case, especially in the years before World War I shattered Europe's film industries. Along with the earlier "Quo Vadis," this three-hour Italian adventure opened America's eyes to the possibility of spectacular epic filmmaking. Filled with sequences like Hannibal's crossing of the Alps and making early use of tracking shots, "Cabiria" became a hit in New York and was the first film to be shown at the White House.

The Birth of a Nation


Its execrable and enduringly painful racism notwithstanding, D.W. Griffith's epic take on the Civil War and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan became an influential landmark not only because of its unprecedented scope, ambition and technique but also because it showed that the infant medium could have a social impact and get away with charging the then-unheard-of admission price of $2 a seat.

The Jazz Singer


Contrary to popular belief, individuals had sung on screen before this celebrated film and Al Jolson had even said his trademark "You ain't heard nothin' yet" on a Vitaphone short a full year earlier. And "Jazz Singer's" sound on disc technology was soon replaced by sound on film. But this was the first film where the spontaneous use of sound so completely captured the public's imagination that a return to the days of completely silent pictures was out of the question.

Becky Sharp


Color in the form of hand-tinted frames had been around almost as long as projected films, and audiences had loved Disney's full-color Silly Symphonies cartoons and the studio's 1934 color short "La Cucaracha." It fell to this dramatization of William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," starring an unstoppable Miriam Hopkins in the title role, to become the first full-length production to be filmed in glowing three-strip Technicolor. Black-and-white never went completely away, but once color caught the public fancy, there was no stopping it.

The Robe


It would be misleading to call this Richard Burton-Jean Simmons-Victor Mature drama about the events surrounding the Crucifixion the "Passion of the Christ" of its day, but now that I've got your attention, you should know that this was the first film in CinemaScope and the centerpiece of Hollywood's fascination with wide screen as a way to combat the inroads television had made into the box office. In a dig at rival 3-D movies, theater marquees proclaimed "The Modern Entertainment Miracle You See Without the Use of Glasses."

I Was a Teen-age Werewolf


Beach Party


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