Although films seem to capture real life effortlessly, they are in fact industrial products: the result of complex technological processes and carefully discussed purposes. These factors vary greatly between a multimillion dollar feature and a casually shot home movie. But in the era of early cinema, when amateur filmmaking was rare, films were usually the product of institutions and corporations. To consider a film as historical evidence, it is therefore very important to always ask who made the film and for what purpose.
The "who" responsible for production certainly involved individuals such as the director and camera operator, but, possibly more important, it also might have included large entities such as film companies, government agencies, religious or political organizations, labor unions, and scientific organizations. Some industries sponsored publicity films; for example, the Santa Fe railway sponsored train films, made by both Edison and the Biograph company, to encourage tourism. Companies such as Westinghouse and National Cash Register sponsored "industrials," films showing how companies produced their products. (See examples of the Westinghouse films at the Library of Congress American Memory site). Evidence about who made a film may be readily available in the film itself. Early film production companies frequently included trademarks in their films, sometimes even fixed on an object in the shot or emblazoned on the intertitles. Opening credits also generally announced the production companies. Although the films themselves may not indicate sponsorship by industries, early film catalogues often do.
Determining the purpose or purposes behind a film can be trickier, but it is equally vital in interpreting the film's historical role. The primary purpose behind most commercial films, of course, was to make a profit, and any film that wanted to attract and keep an audience had to be appealing and entertaining. Therefore, when the Peek Freen company hired filmmaker Charles Urban to make a film about how the company made biscuits, Urban had to fulfill the company's goals while also making an entertaining film. Certain propaganda films announced their messages very clearly. During World War I., various governments made the first films with overt national propaganda messages. Government and health agencies, however, had already realized that film offered powerful forms of persuasion and education, and sponsored or subsidized such films as Edison's The Fly Pest (1909) warning about diseases carried by houseflies. Similarly the Red Cross sponsored a large number of films (including fictional films) about the dangers of tuberculosis and ways to prevent its spread.
But it may be that films convey and instruct best when they least seem to be doing so. Many attitudes conveyed by films, or any cultural product, about gender, race, class, sexuality, or religious and moral values are conceived less as conscious messages than conveyed as common assumptions. While a number of early films make overt statements on such issues as women's right to vote, race relations, pacifism, or birth control, and these statements were undoubtedly part of the purpose in making these films, many other films express attitudes toward woman's proper role, racial equality, or the nature of war or the family without proclaiming a position. Reflecting these attitudes was not the central goal of films, but the attitudes themselves may have had a great effect in shaping a realm of common assumption.
In addition, films can effectively change their purposes. Film images can always be redefined, either by re-positioning, adding a different commentary, or simply because the background beliefs of the audience have changed. Scenes of racist humor, cruelty to animals, or gender attitudes tacitly assumed to be shared by audiences when films were released can appear so radically strange to a contemporary viewer that a comic scene becomes tragic and vice versa.
All films, including films that tell fictional stories, contain ideas about politics, society, and morality. In order to understand the ideologies embedded in films, it is important to know something about who made films and how the public reacted to them. View these two clips from The Birth of a Nation (1915), directed by D. W. Griffith, and Within Our Gates (1919), directed by Oscar Micheaux. What can they tell you about the filmmakers' intentions, and how do the directors use film techniques to convey their messages? Read the Commentary for more information about the films.