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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 are terms used in film criticism which designate both a narrative and visual style of film-making which developed in and characterized US American cinema between 1917 and 1960 and would become the dominant mode of film-making in the United States.

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.

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.