The last few years have been a good time to be a movie fan. Comic book adaptations have gone from a doomed niche market to dominating the box office due to the success of movies like Avengers and The Dark Knight, and science fiction continues to take risks, as seen in Prometheus. The contenders for the Best Picture Oscar in recent years have shown that there is no shortage of dramas that range from the heartening to the heartrending. However, many of the aspects of modern film that we take for granted have long roots in the movies of decades past.
10Promises! Promises! (1963)
Even the most reserved individual can vividly remember the sexiest scenes they have seen in the cinema. From Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Christina Ricci in Black Snake Moan, sex has spiced up film forever.
Of course, it had to start somewhere. Nudity has been a part of cinema since its inception, but for a long time, filmmakers had to wrestle with restrictive morality-based policies such as the Hays Code. In the 1960s, however, movies were beginning to challenge those restrictions on sex and nudity.
Sex comedy Promises! Promises! was the first major motion picture to feature a major star—in this case, Jayne Mansfield—appearing nude. While there had been nudity in smaller (and often silent) movies before, this movie helped legitimize the use of sex to sell a film and fuel the fame of the naked star. Without this movie, there would have been no raunchy sex comedies like American Pie or Knocked Up, nor a generation who mastered the art of hitting the pause button at strategic moments of their favorite scenes.
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9Ocean’s 11 (1960)
When the credits start rolling, one thing becomes abundantly clear: Audiences have been trained to stay seated. For modern audiences, that is largely due to Iron Man‘s post-credits “stinger,” which is an extra scene that rewards fans for sticking around. All of Marvel’s subsequent releases and many other unrelated films have followed suit.
However, Marvel hardly pioneered this idea. It goes all the way back to James Bond’s second film, From Russia With Love, which promised audiences after the credits that “James Bond would return,” a practice that continues to this day.
The first film stinger, however, came from the original Ocean’s 11, which showed Sinatra, Davis, and the rest of the crew sauntering down a street in Las Vegas. Compared to the modern-day “stingers” that seek to surprise to viewers, this was pretty mild, but without Ol’ Blue Eyes roaming down the boulevard, we might have never seen Samuel L. Jackson telling Robert Downey Jr. about The Avengers Initiative.
8Star Wars (1977)
Star Wars revolutionized filmmaking in uncountable ways, raising the bar for special effects, creative use of practical sets, and sci-fi storytelling. In the midst of all of this, one its chief contributions to cinema is often overlooked: the simple act of playing the credits at the end of the movie instead of the beginning.
Everyone recognizes the movie’s famous opening “crawl,” the yellow letters that catch viewers up to the space drama they are about to watch before scrolling into the vastness of space. Though it would later become an icon, the Director’s Guild did not like this idea at all at the time. They ordered George Lucas to display the credits of the cast and crew appear before the film instead, as had been the tradition for decades. Lucas refused to budge and simply paid the required fine to the Guild before resigning.
Time gave Lucas the last laugh. The runaway success of Star Wars meant that filmmakers all over the world would be borrowing its formulas forever, including the elimination of credits at the beginning of the movie. Ultimately, Luke Skywalker didn’t just blow up the Death Star: He blew up the chances that you’ll ever have to sit through five minutes of credits before your movie begins.
7Deep Throat (1972)
Deep Throat was, of course, not the first pornographic movie, but it did define what the modern consumer would consider one. Before this film, most pornos consisted of only about 10 minutes of footage, which was looped repeatedly to create the impression of a longer film. Moreover, such films were mostly viewed in stores selling adults books or adult clubs.
With its campy plot and nearly hour-long running time, Deep Throat made pornography more mainstream. Going out to see the movie was considered a fashionable date activity, and the sight of normal-looking couples heading into normal-looking theaters to see a pornographic movie made pornography more acceptable. If porn didn’t already seem hip to young people, the sight of the federal authorities trying to confiscate reels of film and shut down theaters showing it appealed to rebellious young people, solidifying pornography’s place as another spoke in the wheels of the sexual revolution.
6Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Contrary to persistent rumors, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was not the first animated feature, major or otherwise. However, it was the first animated feature film produced in both English and Technicolor, and it represented an intense level of risk for Walt Disney. At the time, many people, including his wife, assumed that audiences had neither the time nor the patience to sit through a cartoon movie.
Undeterred, Disney borrowed most of the $1.5 million necessary to finance his vision. As we know now, the gamble paid off: The movie made $8 million during the height of the Great Depression and heralded a revolution in animation. Not only did it provide the foundation for later animation companies (such as Hannah-Barbera, Pixar, and Don Bluth Productions), it launched CGI animation, the empire that would eventually dominate theme parks, and mega-hit franchises like Star Wars and Marvel.
5Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
Young Sherlock Holmes was not the first movie to feature computer animation, but it was the first to feature a hyper-realistic CGI character that had to be both scanned and painted onto the film. In retrospect, the scene may seem relatively simple: Sherlock Holmes battling a glass figure that comes alive out of a stained glass illustration. However, without this scene, we may never have had the denizens of future hits Toy Story and Frozen.
This simple scene showed that CGI was not just useful for the SFX spectacle of films such as Star Trek—it could be used to create characters entirely. Without this movie, we would never have such icons of CGI achievement as Gollum from the Lord of the Rings series. More interestingly, the stained-glass knight character was animated by no other than John Lasseter, who would go on to found Pixar and create memorable characters such as Woody and Buzz Lightyear before the company was acquired by Disney.
4The Birth Of A Nation (1915)
D.W. Griffith’s landmark film occupies a dubious place in history. On the most basic level, it’s notable for being the first full-length movie. The success of the three-hour film showed that movies could be more than just simple clips and instead tell an expansive story. Unfortunately, the story Griffith chose to tell is horrifically racist.
The film’s original title, The Clansman, is much more honest about what the film portrays. While the plot concentrates on two families after the Civil War, the alternately lazy, dangerous, and lecherous black characters played by white actors in blackface steal the show. These despicable figures threaten to overrun the South until the heroic Ku Klux Klan saves the day. Thankfully, Hollywood sought to emulate the film’s artistic achievements (the idea of multiple plots, pacing, structure, and groundbreaking camera work) and not its shocking content.
3Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Today, most of us wouldn’t be shocked by the sex, drugs, and nudity portrayed in Midnight Cowboy, allowing us to focus on its message about the bond forged between outcasts in an oppressive and uncaring world. In 1969, however, the Motion Picture Association of America sang a different tune when they gave this non-pornographic movie an “X” rating.
An X rating is normally a death sentence for a movie. However, Midnight Cowboy managed to transcend that barrier, remaining the only X-rated movie to receive the Best Picture Oscar. In total, it was nominated in seven categories at that year’s Academy Awards and won three of them. The next year, the movie’s rating was downgraded to an R.
The movie’s artistic legacy is no small achievement. It created an ongoing conversation about the divide between pornography and art, forcing the audiences of future decades not to dismiss a movie’s artistic value due to its adult content. It also helped to soften the rating policies followed by the MPAA, who reluctantly acknowledged that a movie with such widespread appeal and a plethora of Oscar nominations couldn’t be considered obscene.
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The common lament of book fans when it comes to film adaptations of their favorite novels is that something always gets left on the cutting room floor. Such truncations are unfortunately necessary, as few moviegoers are willing to sit through four-hour epics. However, the Hollywood powers that be had to learn this lesson the hard way, and they did so largely because of Eric Von Stroheim’s 1924 film Greed.
Von Stroheim decided that not a single detail from the page could be omitted from the screen in this adaptation of the American novel McTeague. The eccentric director spent over two years working on the bloated film, which primarily took so long to film because he eschewed Hollywood studios in favor of real locations ranging from the Sierra Nevada mountains to Death Valley.
The result was a film nearly eight hours long. After the studio balked at its length, he managed to cut it in half, but not even that was sufficient. The studio would later order it to be further trimmed down to about two hours and fifteen minutes by someone who had never read the book on which it was based. The extra reels of film—a whopping 32 edited negatives—were melted down for their silver nitrate. A costly lesson was learned, and Hollywood never forgot it. Today, adaptations from books generally do not seek to fully recreate the books on which they are based.
1The Great Train Robbery (1903)
This 1903 movie is silent and only 12 minutes long, but it completely changed film. First, it told a story, specifically of bandits robbing a train before being gunned down during their escape. This was in stark contrast to previous films, which consisted only of one-off scenes meant to titillate and amuse viewers. For the first time, audiences witnessed realistic violence, including the expected gunplay but also the use of coal as a bludgeon, and rudimentary special effects in the form of a dummy that stood in for a man being thrown from the train.
This movie also patented many filming and editing techniques, from the use of multiple locations to panning the camera and using crosscutting to show events that are occurring simultaneously. The popularity of the film at nickel theaters directly contributed to the explosion of movie theaters across America, which paved the way for the entire film industry that followed.