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Latest update : 2017-06-23

The birth of a film industry: Hollywood and World War I

As we mark the centenary of the United States entering World War I, FRANCE 24 brings you a documentary on the birth of Hollywood. Our journalist Florence Gaillard sheds new light on the first movie stars and the first Hollywood films, which emerged during the conflict in Europe.

At the start of the 20th century, while the Europeans were bogged down in World War I, Europe’s film industry was at a standstill. But across the Atlantic, it was starting to take off. Film professionals, who were based in New York and Chicago, were moving to Los Angeles to expand their production. With its sunshine, wide open spaces and the diversity of its landscapes, the Californian metropolis was the perfect setting to welcome ambitious entrepreneurs and artists in search of fame and inspiration.

At the time, Hollywood was a small rural community that had just become part of Los Angeles. Filmmakers were starting to build the first open-air sets. Filming was expanding, production techniques were evolving and the first blockbusters were born.

D. W. Griffith, who directed "The Birth Of A Nation", on a film set in 1915. © © Bison Archives

The conflict in Europe (1914-1918) soon became a source of inspiration for Hollywood. At first, from 1914 to 1915, films made the case for peace, relaying the US policy of non-intervention. The tone began to change from 1916, with heroes who were clearly taking the side of democracy and the Allied powers. In 1917, when the United States entered the war after three years of neutrality, popular actors – such as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford – joined forces with Washington to encourage Americans to sign up for war bonds. Finally, 1918 marked the year of anti-German propaganda, nationalism and victory.

If the Americans managed to take over the world film market, it was because the Europeans were mired in a seemingly endless war. In just a few years, US filmmakers would go from pioneers to tycoons. The Californian studios combined the production, distribution and exploitation of films. To this day, the Europeans, despite inventing cinema themselves, have never caught up with Hollywood.

A portrait of Charlie Chaplin on a wall on Hollywood Boulevard, in Los Angeles. © © France 24

For this documentary, we consulted archival footage: films, photographs, propaganda content... Four American specialists of the period also brought us their insights: Steven J. Ross and William Deverell, history professors at the University of Southern California, Cari Beauchamp, the author of books on the women who marked the beginnings of US cinema – such as Mary Pickford and Frances Marion – and finally Marc Wanamaker, who has the largest collection of documents on Hollywood. We bring you a flashback to the roots of Hollywood, which is still flourishing today.

A documentary produced with the Centenary Partnership Programme.

>> On France 24, also watch our special show "World War One: The war that changed women’s lives"

By Florence GAILLARD

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