‘Birth of a Nation,’ 1915
Moviemaking’s Big Bang. The first American epic and the first box office blockbuster, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth” was and remains hugely controversial for its proudly racist telling of U.S. history. Sadly, America’s racial divide and the idea of directors pandering to audiences remain all too common. But Griffith’s impact was as much about his technical virtuosity as his ambitious scope and storytelling. “Birth” introduced everything from night photography to the use of natural landscapes as background; his tracking shots, close-ups, fade-outs, flashbacks, cross-cutting between scenes, unusual angles and editing created a language for directors, cinematographers and editors for generations to come. Not until the equally ambitious Orson Welles would anyone pack as much cinematic innovation into a single movie.
‘The Jazz Singer,’ 1927
In an era when a jaded society greets each new technological marvel with a shrug of the shoulders, it is hard to imagine that it was less than 80 years ago that the first “talkie” arrived.
Although cinema is at its heart a visual medium, it required language to deeply connect with the human soul. The moment Al Jolson said, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” movies were invigorated with a dynamic new ingredient, and classic lines — “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “You talkin’ to me?” — resonate throughout American popular culture. Nothing else — the introduction of color, the collapse of the studio system — changed movies as dramatically.
The Hays Code, 1934
In 1933, Prohibition was repealed. With booze finally flowing legally, and sex and violence flourishing on film–think Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West on one hand and Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney on the other — it seemed America was finally shedding its Puritanical roots.
In 1934, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Assn. imposed its own self-censoring law, the Hays Code, clamping down on all the illicit stuff that made movies thrilling before the federal government did. This wasn’t just about eliminating flagrant displays of nudity or gunplay: The heavy-handed rules prohibited everything from adultery (without disastrous consequences) to lack of respect for religion. For all the creative writing and clever innuendo that strived to surreptitiously subvert the code, movies suffered for the next three decades as actors were force-fed lines to drive home moral points (the end of “White Heat”) and directors were forced to cut edgy material (anything by Tennessee Williams). It would take the rebellion of the 1960s to set filmmakers free.
‘Snow White,’ 1937
A cartoon as a full-length feature? What nonsense. As Walt Disney painstakingly created his first animated movie over three years, and at the cost of $1.7 million during the depths of the Depression, his project was dubbed “Disney’s Folly” and many naysayers presumed that “Snow White” would be bloodied by red ink.
Instead, Disney, with his magnificent blend of dramatic storytelling, charming musical numbers and a new concept in filmmaking (using multiplane cameras to add the illusion of depth to the animation) struck gold. “Snow White” was an astonishing success and Disney mined his formula again and again until his name was not a name but a brand, one of the most powerful in the minds of American children. Animation was legitimized, with the last two decades producing some of the most ambitious and successful features. Not bad for a gullible young girl and her seven height-challenged friends.
‘Citizen Kane,’ 1941
Lights. Camera. Action.
Orson Welles reimagined all three with “Citizen Kane,” a movie whose dynamic use of the medium forever altered filmmaking. “Kane” is a compelling saga about the rise and fall of a powerful newspaper publisher, but it was the innovative storytelling techniques of helmer Welles and lenser Gregg Toland that made “Kane” ahead of its time.
He wasn’t necessarily the first to use shadows, deep focus and low-angled shots, lengthy scenes filmed without interruption, overlapping dialogue, flashbacks and a nonlinear storyline — some of these ideas had been used in films such as “Stagecoach,” “His Girl Friday” and “Rebecca.” But no one had fused so many unusual elements together and used them all to serve (rather than distract from) the story; he gave future generations of filmmakers permission to try everything and anything.
‘I Love Lucy,’ 1951
In 1950, there were television sets in only 10 million American households. Two years later that number had doubled. The difference? In October 1951, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz introduced the nation to “I Love Lucy.” While the new medium obviously had its appeal, millions of people were investing in this large piece of living- room furniture solely because of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. They bought sets and then made “Lucy” TV’s top-rated series in four of its six seasons. When the real-life couple were having a baby, Lucy got pregnant on the show — when Little Ricky was born in January 1953, the episode drew 44 million viewers, 92% of all people watching television that night, and it battled for headlines with the (lower-rated) inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower as president. People might have liked Ike but everybody loved Lucy.
Army-McCarthy hearings, 1954
The Army-McCarthy hearings in the spring of 1954 were the first congressional hearings to be broadcast nationally. But this was more than a mere technological first, it was a dramatic turning point in which Americans and their political leaders first realized the persuasive power of the new medium.
Joseph McCarthy’s undoing was brought about not by another politician standing up to him but by television itself — first by Edward R. Murrow on “See It Now” and then by McCarthy’s own harangues. When Army lawyer Joseph Welch asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency,” McCarthy was finished, left dumbstruck and muttering, “What happened?”
It wasn’t just that McCarthy was too “hot” for this “cool” medium, but that television had shown its central role in American life. In the future, every major news story, be they similar hearings — Watergate or the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill showdown — or tragedies like 9/11, sent people to their televisions to try to make sense of what happened.
Elvis on ‘Ed Sullivan,’ 1956
Ed Sullivan swore he’d never have that renegade Elvis Presley on his show, not after all that gyrating the slick young singer did on Milton Berle’s show. But Sullivan was too shrewd to pass on such an immense talent, especially one that was driving the kids wild. So after Presley played nice by wearing a tuxedo and singing “Hound Dog” to a hound dog on Steve Allen’s show, Sullivan not only relented, he handed over a record $50,000 to the future King in payment for three appearances.
Elvis’ first appearance in September 1956 — a remote from Hollywood — was a ratings record-setter and sent Presley’s disc sales skyrocketing. His third appearance, in January 1957, was perhaps the most memorable, in part because Sullivan publicly befriended the rocker and proclaimed him a “real decent, fine boy,” and, in part, because either Sullivan or Elvis’ publicity-savvy manager, Col. Tom Parker, stirred up cries of censorship because the gyrating Presley was only shown from above the waist. Either way, Sullivan and Presley had shown how the vast reach of rock ‘n’ roll and television could combine to get America all shook up.
The marriage of sports and television, 1958
Today, the connection seems obvious but back in the 1950s, TV was just coming of age and many sports execs viewed it as the enemy, something that diminished gate revenue.
Then came “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
The National Football League still lagged behind baseball and even boxing in popularity but the championship game on Dec. 28, 1958, changed everything. Johnny Unitas led the Baltimore Colts to a stunning victory over the New York Giants in the league’s first sudden-death overtime game. Viewers were entranced by their close-up look at this thrilling contest and soon football was America’s game. The championship morphed into the Super Bowl, which took on the importance of a national holiday. TV and sports got into each other’s bloodstreams, becoming essential to each other and to American pop culture.
Alfred Hitchcock had already kept filmgoers in suspense for two decades. But in 1960 he went one step further and scared the hell out of them.
A taut and tense narrative and Anthony Perkins’ brilliant, creepy performance enhanced Hitchcock’s magnificent manipulation of “Psycho.” The movie broke numerous taboos — a protagonist who is an adulteress and a thief, and who dies a third of the way in — but it was the buzz about the infamous shower scene that sent everyone racing to the local movie theater.
With knife slashing and violins screeching, “Psycho” gave birth to the modern horror film. Unfortunately for moviegoers, those who followed soaked their movies in blood and gore, lacking Hitchcock’s delicate dexterity and the understanding that a movie is more terrifying when it leaves something to the viewer’s imagination. Isn’t that right, Mother?
Kennedy-Nixon debate, 1960
John Kennedy understood the power of television. He showed up for the initial 1960 presidential debate — the first ever to be televised — tanned and ready. He took an interest in the details, the way the medium worked. Richard Nixon just didn’t get it. He refused makeup to cover his five o’clock shadow and his sickly complexion (he’d just been in the hospital) and made no effort to understand how to play to the camera.
Most people listening on the radio thought the debate had been about even. But 70 million Americans tuned in on television … and they saw one vibrant, vigorous man and one they didn’t think they could trust to run the country. Television had just become the swing vote in presidential politics.
‘Ladies and gentlemen … The Beatles!’ 1964
And with that simple introduction, everything changed as an entire generation of Americans was reduced to shrieking, shaking maniacs. Frank Sinatra had had his bobby-soxers and Elvis had his momentous “Ed Sullivan” performance but this was different, bigger.
To some extent it was merely the times, the youth culture and counterculture on the rise, but it was also the Beatles themselves. On their first American trip, they were adorable mop tops who seduced with their wit and unique look almost as much as with their songs and harmonies. But unlike Sinatra and Presley, the Beatles wrote their own songs and were musical visionaries who could lead and reflect their generation with an ever-expanding palette of sounds, styles and ideas.
Of course, on Feb. 9, 1964, all that was in the future. That night was all about the screaming.
Televised moon landing, 1969
John Kennedy, the president who had promised to put a man on the moon by decade’s end, was long dead. His brother Bobby was gone, too, as was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Cold War was showing no signs of cooling. The nation was anguished, racked with political, cultural and generational strife that seemed to be shredding the social fabric that bound people together.
Then, on July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins turned science-fiction fantasies into reality. From liftoff to landing, it seemed that the entire nation — and most of the world — was riveted by the images on their television screen of these three men boldly going where no men had ever gone before.
When Armstrong took his small step for man, it did indeed seem like a giant leap for mankind, proving that we could create a future out of our imagination and aspiration.
Woodstock Music & Art Fair, 1969
Woodstock took place in Bethel, N.Y., miles from the town of Woodstock, in awful weather, with bad acid, inconsistent music and terrible organization. But it didn’t matter because in 1969, Woodstock was a state of mind.
The three-day festival of “peace and music” might have even represented the worst of 1960s destructive self-indulgence, or maybe it merely symbolized the absurd naivete of that generation’s optimism. But for the hundreds of thousands who flocked there from all over the country, for the millions who wished they were there and who bought the record and saw the movie, it truly provided a weekend of hope for a freer, more peaceful and community-oriented future.
When Jimi Hendrix capped Woodstock with his mesmerizing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” it was an anthem for a nation that had changed forever.
‘Easy Rider,’ 1969
When “Easy Rider” hit theaters in 1969, the decade already had delivered movies depicting the emptiness of the older generations and the need for the younger crowd to break free. But “Easy Rider” drove America from the Summer of Love into the disillusionment of the 1970s.
At first glance, “Easy Rider” might seem a carefree hippie movie that glorified sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But as it plays on, it becomes obvious that this was a far grimmer look at the counterculture life. It portrays an America too repressive to ever be free and too violent to nurture dreams. It also paved the way for a new wave of filmmakers to express their personal visions, some self-indulgently but in many cases brilliantly.
‘Saturday Night Live,’ 1975
Latenight TV was considered a vast wasteland by net executives — all the coveted young viewers were out partying and nothing could keep them home in front of the tube. Nothing, that is, except a show both smart and silly, with a frenetic energy and a cast of outrageous unknowns bursting with talent and reveling in political satire in a way few shows had. (In less permissive times, those that tried, like “The Smothers Brothers Show,” had landed in trouble.)
“Saturday Night Live’s” Not Ready for Prime Time Players over the years spawned cross-over successes such as John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Eddie Murphy, David Spade, Dana Carvey, Chris Farley and Mike Myers. It also shaped the tastes — in comedy and music — of every generation since its debut: Comedy Central’s “‘The Daily Show” owes its existence to “SNL’s” Weekend Update segment. While the show has become an institution, its writers and cast still manage to take a bite out of the establishment.
Da-dum da-dum … da-dum, da-dum … da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum … And as the terrifying cello and bass peak, out of the water surges a shark, insatiable and maddeningly elusive.
No, not the shark from “Jaws,” but the beast that came after — the Hollywood studio’s summer blockbuster.
“Jaws” was made on a relatively low budget by unknown young director Steven Spielberg, who wisely used the less-is-more approach to terror that served Hitchcock so well in “Psycho.” But it wasn’t just Spielberg who made this film into a phenomenon. Universal unleashed a large-scale and, for its time, revolutionary ad campaign on television and then flooded the market by getting “Jaws” on more than 400 screens for its opening weekend — a record at that time. Within three weeks, the movie had grossed nearly $50 million. Swimming in the ocean and summer releases would never be the same.
‘I Want My MTV,’ 1982
In March 1982, MTV was a nothing of a cable network. Hey, back then cable itself was a bit of a joke. Then Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, the Police and others start declaring “I Want My MTV.” Next thing you know, millions of young Americans decide they want their MTV and cable operators are happy to oblige.
MTV had launched the previous August with about 2.1 million subscribers but thanks to its groundbreaking marketing campaign, it ended 1982 with more than four times that amount. It also put a premium on photogenic pop stars, developed a whole visual language for musicvideo storytelling and impacted the music biz as nothing had since radio. Soon, everybody not only had their MTV, VH1, MTV2, and so on … but MTV had an entertainment empire so vast no one could escape even if they didn’t want their MTV.
Johnny Carson’s last show, 1992
Johnny Carson always had impeccable timing. He had been in America’s bedrooms for 30 years, keeping us company, making us laugh and transforming himself into a venerable institution. But he got out just in time.
When Carson said farewell on May 22, 1992, the television landscape was already experiencing a tectonic shift as broadcast networks new (Fox) and old (CBS) were trying to make a mark in latenight, and cable television was fragmenting the audience in a way that would forever shatter the illusion of unity “The Tonight Show” once provided — the nation would never laugh together in the same way. On that final night, Carson noted that there were 2 billion people on Earth — 400 million more people than when he started, adding, “A more amazing statistic is that half of those… will soon have their own latenight TV show.” None will ever be Johnny.
‘The Sopranos,’ 1999
How does a network that reaches perhaps one-third of the nation have everyone at every watercooler buzzing about it? With a bunch of goombahs from New Jersey, that’s how.
HBO has had more shocking and confrontational shows (“Oz”) and more complex and ambitious shows (“The Wire,” “Deadwood”) but few networks have ever had a show that captured the public’s imagination like “The Sopranos.”
Maybe it’s the glamour of a life of crime, maybe it’s the operatic sensibility of the Mafia, maybe it was the chemistry between James Gandolfini and Lorraine Bracco. Whatever it was, this was the one show among the thousands of shows on dozens of channels that made people call their cable operators and sign up.