Classical Hollywood cinema and how they fall under

Classical Hollywood is a tradition of methods and structures
that were prominent in American cinema between 1916 and 1960, often referred to
as “The Hollywood’s golden age”. Although many of its traditions live on in
Hollywood cinema today, Pam Cooke once said “contrary to all trendy journalism
about the ‘New Hollywood’ and the imagined rise of artistic freedom in American
films, the ‘New Hollywood’ remains as crass and commercial as the old…”1
showing that the Hollywood style has become very popular with general
audiences. Its popularity has been credited to the seamlessness manner its
portrays. To understand what lead to it gaining such popularity, we first must
analyse the defining aspects of classical Hollywood cinema and how they fall under
the guise of seamlessness and how it attracted audiences. Susan Hayward says of
classical Hollywood Cinema Studies says this of the key concepts of classical
Hollywood cinema “in this cinema, style is subordinate to narrative: shots,
lighting, colour must not draw attention to themselves any more than the
editing, the mise-en-scène or sound. Everything must function to manufacture

Throughout I will be referring heavily towards two films,
Citizen Kane (1941) directed by Orson Welles and Casablanca (1942) directed by
Michael Curtiz. Both highly acclaimed and hits with critics and audiences

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now


“Classical Hollywood cinema possesses a style which is
largely invisible and difficult for the average spectator to see. The narrative
is delivered so effortlessly and efficiently to the audience that it appears to
have no source. It comes magically off the screen.”3

Three-act narrative are the guidelines for classical
Hollywood, where a situation is presented and then a disruption takes place and
there is a resolution in the end. Often the plot progressing through time in a
linear manner. The ending wrapping up very neatly, with clear cut closure. Life
unfortunately does not resolve itself so simply and so Hollywood takes
advantage of the audience’s natural affinity to suspend their disbelief. People
know that the character of Citizen Kane is not real but are willing to let
themselves believe, if just for a moment so they can envelope themselves in the
story and world.

Classical Hollywood cinema is a character-centred cinema. Often
following one or a few individuals throughout. The characters are more clearly
defined and hold specific goals. Although this cinema is also a plot driven or
action cinema, characters stand in the centre and interact with them. While
earthquakes, alien invasions or cyborgs may act as catalysts to events, the
stories generally focus on the personal choices of individual people, say
Bordwell and Thompson.4

In the film, Casablanca the narrative surrounds the
characters of the film. The focus is on Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart. He is
a mysterious man and a dangerous one as well. Beyond his mysterious nature lies
a shady moral centre, but shockingly and almost contradictory he also shows
profound moral strength. Rick is a kind and amiable man, who treats his
employees with a lot of respect. Ilsa is another mysterious character, one who
did not reveal much of her life or her past. The dynamic between Rick and Ilsa
is an alluring one. Their relationship and history with one another provides
much of the drama and serves as the basis for one of the stories of the film.

Over the course of the narrative character’s focus on their
goals and the means to accomplish them. They overcome the obstacles that stand
in their way (villains), triumphs over adverse circumstances (such as physical
disabilities, nature or some other force) and or transcend their own fears and
weaknesses. Ending the narrative with the character’s triumph or failure, with
the resolution and attainment of their goals.

The audience should not have a hard time understanding the
characters and their goals, as they are portrayed as coherent individuals. Every
question that is raised throughout the plot must be answered. In terms of style
it explains rather than obscure the narrative. In Citizen Kane, the question of
what Kane’s last words meant, being Rosebud, that set the journalist off in
search and resulted in him discovering much of Kane’s extraordinary life, is
answered at the end of the film. Also, due to being structured in terms of order/disorder/order restored
and the ending being “A Deux ex Machina”, seen as meaning “the convenient
miracle”, classical Hollywood cinema is often thought to be predictable. Maybe
it is this predictability that causes the spectator to have an emotional
investment in the conclusion, as already discussed the conclusion are often
resolutions and this may appear most desirable for the spectator to see. According
to David Bordwell it is an “excessively obvious cinema”.5
It could be argued that the general audience does not want to be challenged
when it comes to narrative and would much rather be given easy to follow and ‘cookie
cutter’ plot and characters.


This era of time coined the phrase continuity editing. The definition
of this is a system of cutting used to maintain continuous and clear narrative
action by following a set of rules. The goal being to make the cuts appear
invisible and help strengthen the narrative. Its carries on our running theme
of a coherent narrative. Considering the following rules will give us a better
understanding of continuity editing.

Reverse shot was defined as two shots cut together, usually
during a conversation between two characters, which in one cut the characters
in frame looks left and in the following cut the characters in frame look

Camera angles and distance is also another aspect. An
example is in Citizen Kane with the use of low angle shots as he stands in his
deserted campaign. The introduction of the 180 and 30-degree rule were heavily
used throughout this era. These were used to maintain screen direction to not
disorientate the audience with cuts in terms of movement and eyeline.

The 180-degree rule states that all action must take place
within an imaginary 180-degree arc. Anything on the other side of that arc is
considered “crossing the line” and will disorient the viewer.6
In the case of the 30-degree rule when moving your camera between shots the
camera should be moved a minimum 30-degrees, again this is here to avoid
jarring cuts or transitions.

Continuity editing helped you seamlessly piece together a
larger sequence of shots in a harmonious manner. Allowing a crisp clean
experience for the audience. To compare this to Russian film editing, were
space can be disorientating for the viewer. For example, Dziga Vertov’s Man
with a Movie Camera documents the everyday activities of people from various
locations in the Soviet Union, but never gives priority to a continuity of


Mise-en-scène refers to all the visual information contained
within the frame to stage the action. If it’s in frame of the camera and it’s a
physical object than its mise-en-scène. The actors, the décor, costume,
lighting, etc., enable the audience to understand the world of the film, the
narrative, and the actions. Mise-en-scène sole function is to manufacture
realism. To reinforce this idea in classical Hollywood cinema, the different
elements, must fit into the world and look like they belong, unless the plot
means otherwise. While at the same time highlighting key aspects or themes. In
one of the first scenes in the graduate Mrs Robinson is wearing a fur coat,
giving us the impression she is a predator hunting for her prey. Fitting taking
the context of the film involves her seducing the young Benjamin. Also, the
positioning of characters and objects within the frame hold importance on how
the audience intakes its information.

For example, with the opening scenes of Casablanca it shows
people getting arrested on the streets by policemen, one of these people
attempt to run but is caught and arrested, some papers are taken from him which
appear to be propaganda material. If you observe carefully, you see that the
shot is zoomed in, for a few seconds, at the officer holding the papers in a
very awkward and poor camera angle. In fact, the officer had a poor vision of
the papers. What counts most is what the audience sees, so filmmakers of the
time tended to stage the visual materials only for audience. This made it very
easy for the audience to keep up to pace with the narrative and not to get lost.
Being able to follow the narrative step by step.

Another example is in Citizen Kane’s first flashback scene
where the parents are shown discussing the young Kane’s future in the
foreground while in the background Kane plays in the snow. Kane appears
visually trapped in the frame of the window, representing the way he is being
trapped into Mr Thatcher’s guardianship. In both examples, it gives us sense in
how the audience is being fed information, once again adding to the
seamlessness of the whole experience.


The lighting used in classical Hollywood cinema is called
three-point lighting. Being separated into:

Key – main light on subject

Fill – fills shadows created by key

Back – separates subject from background

Casablanca being produced in black and white gave it much
added value. Allowing the director to play with light a lot more and being able
to highlight certain aspects. It toys with the idea of sending signals to the
audience about how they are supposed to feel at a certain point. Casablanca being
a romance, uses filters to subdue the levels of light help to create a romantic
mood. Diffusion filters, particularly if used in conjunction with a gauze
placed over the lens, give a very soft focus which is ideal to create a
romantic mood such as after Casablanca when Rick (Humphrey Bogart) says goodbye
to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman).7

Another example again in Casablanca, when Ilsa renters
Rick’s life, key light placement allows for a backlight to provide the only
illumination for the shot. When Ilsa enters the scene, she is clothed in white
and bathed in light, being a metaphor for purity, innocence.

Music is there to reinforce the current on screen action
such as romance or drama. Dominant ideologies are promoted. Ideology is defined
as a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of
economic or political theory and policy8.
The one ideology that stand out is capitalism. Hero embarks on a mission,
succeeds, and with that comes power, monetary spoils, etc. Capitalism has
always been the dominant ideology in western society and may explain why such
character orientated plots became so widely accepted.

All these elements are implemented subtly to mould this air
of seamlessness. They fuse together to create a cinema experience which is
easily viewed and does not challenge the audience to the same degree
experimental films do, often breaking rules and appearing less conventional. At
the same time the rules constricting classical Hollywood cinema do not dull
down the overall experience for the viewer. To use an analogy introduced to me
by my tutor, Hollywood cinema is like candy floss, it looks pretty and is
easily consumed.

The Hollywood style is so good at lying to audience, and by
this, I mean convincing us that all we see on the screen is real. The editing,
mise-en-scene, narrative etc. work together to create this sense of realism. When
in truth they are far from realistic in a social sense but possibly portray a
realism desired by the audiences and society at the time. Movies have always
been smoke and mirrors but the Hollywood style seems to truly embrace this. ‘Tinsel
town’ has spent a fortune every year since the 1920s faking realism.9

1 Pam
Cooke’s(ed) The Cinema Book,1st ed (BFI, 1990)5

2 Classical
Hollywood Cinema Studies the Key Concepts (Susan Hayward, Routledge, 2)

3 John Belton, film scholar, Rutgers University

2017. ONLINE Available at:
Accessed 1 May 2017.

5 Bordwell/Staiger/Thompson, D/J/K.
(1985). The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to
1960. London: Routledge pp.3

6 Mastering 2016. ONLINE Available at: Accessed 2 May 2017

7 Nick
Lacey (2016). Introduction to film. 2nd ed. London: Palgrave. 343.

English Oxford Living Dictionaries. 2017. ONLINE Available at: Accessed 2 May 2017.

2017. ONLINE Available at:
Accessed 2 May 2017.


I'm Harold!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out