Classical Hollywood cinema

Classical Hollywood Cinema
Years active 1917–1960
Country United States
Major figures D. W. Griffith, John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder
Influences The Renaissance, Theatrical realism

Classical Hollywood cinema, classical Hollywood narrative, and classical continuity[1] are terms used in film criticism which designate both a narrative and visual style of film-making which developed in and characterized American cinema between 1917 and 1960 and would become the dominant mode of film-making in the United States.[2]

Classical Hollywood is characterized by a set of norms, with most Hollywood films exhibiting an “unstable equilibrium” of these norms. These norms concern the use of particular technical devices (three-point lighting, continuity editing, framing, musical scores, etc.) to establish three main interrelated systems: narrative logic (causality), cinematic time, and cinematic space. The narrative logic of classical Hollywood treats film narration much like literary narration, with a plot centered on the psychological motivation of the characters and their struggle towards a goal. Likewise, the visual approach towards storytelling treats film much like a photographed play, using the manipulation of cinematic time and space to make the film appear as real as a production on the stage. The "Classical Hollywood" approach to narrative and visual storytelling would become the most powerful and pervasive style of film-making worldwide.

Development of the Classical style

Early narrative film (1895–1913)

For centuries the only visual standard of narrative storytelling was the theatre. Since the first narrative film, Lumière's L'Arroseur arrosé, was made in 1895, filmmakers sought to capture the power and realism of live theatre on the cinema screen. Most of these filmmakers started as directors on the late 19th century stage, and likewise most film actors had roots in vaudeville or melodrama. Early film-makers largely failed to recognize both the limitations and the freedom of the new medium. Visually, early narrative films had adapted little from the stage, and their narratives had adapted very little from vaudeville and melodrama. Regardless of any merit they had in the proscenium, these narrative films lost both their power and their realism on the cinematic frame. Melodrama and vaudeville only emphasized the artificiality of film, and likewise stagy visuals on film appeared two-dimensional and static. Before the visual style which would become known as "classical continuity", scenes were filmed in full shot and used carefully choreographed staging to portray plot and character relationships. Cutting was extremely limited, and mostly consisted of close-ups of writing on objects for their legibility.[3]

Maturation of the silents (1913–1917)

The Mothering Heart screenshot

Though lacking the reality inherent to the stage, film (unlike stage) offers the freedom to manipulate apparent time and space, and thus to create the illusion of realism — that is temporal linearity and spatial continuity. By the early 1910s, film-making was beginning to fulfill its artistic potential. In Sweden and Denmark this period would be known as a "Golden Age" of film,[4] in America this artistic change is attributed to filmmakers like Griffith finally breaking the grip of the Edison Trust to make films independent of the manufacturing monopoly. Films worldwide began to noticeably adopt visual and narrative elements which would be found in Classical Hollywood Cinema. 1913 was a particularly fruitful year for the medium, as pioneering directors from several countries produced masterpieces such as The Mothering Heart (D. W. Griffith), Ingeborg Holm (Victor Sjöström), and L’enfant de Paris (Léonce Perret) that set new standards for film as a form of storytelling.[3]

In the world generally and America specifically, the influence of Griffith on film-making was unmatched. Equally influential were his actors in adapting their performances to the new medium. Lillian Gish, the star of The Mothering Heart, is particularly noted for her influence on screen performance techniques. D. W. Griffith's 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation was groundbreaking for film as a means of storytelling — a masterpiece of literary narrative with numerous innovative visual techniques. The film initiated so many advances in American cinema that it was rendered obsolete within a few years.[5] Though 1913 was a global landmark for film-making, 1917 was primarily an American one.

Classical Hollywood cinema In the Silent Era (1917 – late 1920s)

Ben Hur theatrical release poster

The era of "Classical Hollywood Cinema" is distinguished by a narrative and visual style which would begin to dominate the medium in America by 1917.

Major films in this period include Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Wild and Woolly (1917), Broken Blossoms (1919), The Last of the Mohicans (1920), Within Our Gates (1920), Pollyanna (1920), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), Safety Last! (1923), Greed (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Ben-Hur (1925), The Big Parade (1925), The Gold Rush (1925), The Black Pirate (1926), The General (1926), Flesh and the Devil (1926), It (1927), and The Wind (1928).

Classical Hollywood cinema In the Sound Era (late 1920s – 1960)

Citizen Kane theatrical release poster

The narrative and visual style of Classical Hollywood Style would further develop in the talkies from where it began in the silents. The primary changes in American film-making came from the film industry itself, with the height of the studio system. This mode of production, with its reigning star system bankrolled by several key studios, had preceded sound by several years. By mid-1920 most of the prominent American directors and actors, who had worked independently since the early 10s, would have to become a part of the new studio system to continue to their work.

The beginning of the sound era itself is ambiguously defined. Some begin the start of the sound era with The Jazz Singer was released in 1927 and increased box-office profits for films as sound was introduced to feature films. Others begin the era at 1929, when the silent age had definitively ended. Most Hollywood pictures from the late 1920s to 1960 adhered closely to a genre—Western, slapstick comedy, musical, animated cartoon, biopic (biographical picture)—and the same creative teams often worked on films made by the same studio. For instance, Cedric Gibbons and Herbert Stothart always worked on MGM films, Alfred Newman worked at Twentieth Century Fox for twenty years, Cecil B. DeMille's films were almost all made at Paramount Pictures, director Henry King's films were mostly made for Twentieth Century-Fox. Similarly, actors were mostly contract players. Film historians and critics note that it would take about a decade for films to adapt to sound and return to the level of artistic quality of the silents, which it did in the late 1930s.

Many great works of cinema that emerged from this period were of highly regimented film-making. One reason this was possible is that, with so many films being made, not every one had to be a big hit. A studio could gamble on a medium-budget feature with a good script and relatively unknown actors: Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles and regarded by some as the greatest film of all time, fits that description. In other cases, strong-willed directors like Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra battled the studios in order to achieve their artistic visions. The apogee of the studio system may have been the year 1939, which saw the release of such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Destry Rides Again,Young Mr. Lincoln, Wuthering Heights, Only Angels Have Wings, Ninotchka, Beau Geste, Babes in Arms, Gunga Din, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and The Roaring Twenties.

Among other films from this period now considered classics, are: Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, It's a Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night,Sunset Boulevard, King Kong, Rebecca, Suspicion, Citizen Kane, Swing Time, Some Like It Hot, A Night at the Opera, Sergeant York, All About Eve, The Maltese Falcon, The Searchers, Laura, North by Northwest, Morocco, Rebel Without a Cause, Rear Window, Double Indemnity, City Lights, Psycho, High Noon, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Bringing Up Baby, Notorious, Singin' in the Rain, Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday, From Here To Eternity, and On the Waterfront.


Classical Hollywood cinema possesses a style which is largely invisible and difficult for the average spectator to see. The narrative is delivered so effortlessly and efficiently to the audience that it appears to have no source. It comes magically off the screen.

John Belton, film scholar, Rutgers University[6]

The visual-narrative style of classical Hollywood cinema as elaborated by David Bordwell,[7] was heavily influenced by the ideas of the Renaissance and its resurgence of mankind as the focal point. It is distinguished at three general levels: devices, systems, and the relations of systems.


The devices most inherent to Classical Hollywood Cinema are those of continuity editing. This includes the 180-degree rule, one of the major visual-spatial elements of continuity editing. The 180-degree rule keeps with the "photographed play" style by creating an imaginary 180-degree axis between the viewer and the shot, allowing the viewer to clearly orient themselves within the position and direction of action in a scene. According to the 30-degree rule, cuts in the angle that the scene is viewed from must be significant enough for the viewer to understand the purpose of a change in perspective. Cuts that do not adhere to the 30-degree rule, known as jump cuts, are disruptive to the illusion of temporal continuity between shots. The 180-degree and 30-degree rules are elementary guidelines in film-making that preceded the official start of the classical era by over a decade, as seen in the pioneering 1902 French film A Trip to the Moon. Cutting techniques in classical continuity editing serve to help establish or maintain continuity, as in the cross cut, which establishes the concurrence of action in different locations. Jump cuts are allowed in the form of the axial cut, which does not change the angle of shooting at all, but has the clear purpose of showing a perspective closer or farther from the subject and therefore does not interfere with temporal continuity.


Narrative logic

Classical narration progresses always through psychological motivation, i.e. by the will of a human character and its struggle with obstacles towards a defined goal. This narrative element is commonly composed of a primary narrative (often a romance) intertwined with a secondary narrative, such as a business or a crime. This narrative is structured with an unmistakable beginning, middle and end, and generally there is a distinct resolution. Utilizing actors, events, causal effects, main points and secondary points are basic characteristics of this type of narrative. The characters in Classical Hollywood Cinema have clearly definable traits, are active, and very goal oriented. They are causal agents motivated by psychological rather than social concerns.[2] The narrative is a chain of cause and effect with the characters being the causal agents — in classical style, events do not occur randomly.

Cinematic time

Time in classical Hollywood is continuous, linear, and uniform, since non-linearity calls attention to the illusory workings of the medium. The only permissible manipulation of time in this format is the flashback. It is mostly used to introduce a memory sequence of a character, e.g. Casablanca.

Cinematic space

The greatest rule of classical continuity regarding space is object permanence: the viewer must believe that the scene exists outside the shot of the cinematic frame to maintain the picture's realism. The treatment of space in classical Hollywood strives to overcome or conceal the two-dimensionality of film ("invisible style") and is strongly centered upon the human body. The majority of shots in a classical film focus on gestures or facial expressions (medium-long and medium shots). André Bazin once compared classical film to a photographed play in that the events seem to exist objectively and that cameras only give us the best view of the whole play.[8]

This treatment of space consists of four main aspects: centering, balancing, frontality and depth. Persons or objects of significance are mostly in the center part of the picture frame and never out of focus. Balancing refers to the visual composition, i.e. characters are evenly distributed throughout the frame. The action is subtly addressed towards the spectator (frontality) and set, lighting (mostly three-point lighting) and costumes are designed to separate foreground from the background (depth).

Relations of systems

The aspects of space and time are subordinated to the narrative element.


  1. The Classic Hollywood Narrative Style at University of San Diego History Dept
  2. 1 2 Goldburg, Michael. "Classical Hollywood Cinema". Retrieved 2012-04-22.
  3. 1 2
  4. "The "golden age" of silent film – Sweden – bio, actress, children, wife, cinema, role, story".
  5. Brownlow, Kevin (1968). The Parade's Gone By.... University of California Press. p. 78. ISBN 0-520-03068-0.
  6. Classical Hollywood Narrative
  7. Bordwell, David; Staiger, Janet; Thompson, Kristin (1985): The Classical Hollywood Cinema. Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press. 1-59
  8. Bordwell: 24

Further reading

External links

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