Nine Unheralded Firsts in Film

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Surprisingly, not many people know much about milestones in the evolution of cinema. Sure, you could probably name 1927's The Jazz Singer as the world's first "talkie" (meaning the first feature film with synchronized sound taken from live recorded audio). And if you're a real movie trivia buff, you might remember that 1952's Bwana Devil was the first color 3-D feature - but even at that, we're drifting into esoterica. Well, this list gets even more obscure than that. But it's interesting stuff, I promise.

  1. First Hollywood feature film in color: THE TOLL OF THE SEA (1922). You'd think this would be common knowledge, but because so many early developments in film were happening all over the world, it's hard to nail down many true "firsts". In terms of color movies, there were many earlier shorts and features shot in b&w then hand-tinted. A British process called "Kinemacolor" used camera and projector filters with b&w film, later improved upon by Technicolor for 1917's The Gulf Between, shot in Florida. But The Toll of the Sea - a studio picture that made a star out of Anna May Wong - was the first that didn't require a special projector like The Gulf Between did.
  2. First film to establish weekly box office reports: A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). In early 1972, as Stanley Kubrick was trying to choose the best venues for his controversial new film, he decided to make a spreadsheet out of years of weekly box office reports for individual theaters, in order to get a sense of their comparative and cumulative box office. No one had ever done this before. Variety heard about Kubrick's number crunching breakthrough, asked him for technical advice on how they could do the same for their magazine, and that's why today's media commonly obsesses over weekend box office hauls. There's a great article about this here.
  3. First film to list the entire crew in the closing credits: STAR WARS (1977). According to Ray Morton's exhaustive making-of book about Close Encounters of the Third Kind, George Lucas was the first filmmaker to decide to list just about everybody in production and post-production in his film's end credits. (Spielberg followed suit for Close Encounters later that year.) Before 1977, only department heads were listed in the credits. Soon after this shift, most films began doing the same, and now some of these crawls are over ten minutes long.
  4. First film to offer profit sharing for its star: WINCHESTER '73 (1950). Weirdly, more people seem to know about this than I thought. I guess because it has to do with celebrities and/or money? Anyway, it's well-documented that James Stewart's agent, the legendary Lew Wasserman, negotiated a pioneering deal for his client, in which Stewart would take a lower upfront salary in exchange for 50% of the film's profits. (Smart move: Stewart raked in $600,000 from profits as opposed to the $200,000 he had requested for his salary.) Now it is common for A-list stars to receive "points" on their movies.
  5. First feature film with a website: either STARGATE or STAR TREK GENERATIONS (both 1994). Hollywood never fully embraced the movie website, but nevertheless, this is a fun personal story. As you may know, I was a graphic designer in the early days of the World Wide Web, and I would eventually work for both companies that produced these sites: Digital Planet, who made the Stargate site for Universal, and Paramount Digital Entertainment, who in a previous incarnation made the Generations site for their parent studio. Each company argued that they were first, yet despite my becoming close friends with the guys who were actually there, nobody could accurately tell me the date that each site was launched. Thus, this matter may never be settled.
  6. First film rated PG-13: RED DAWN (1984). Thanks to certain gruesome PG movies in 1984, chiefly Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins, the MPAA was pressured to add a new rating for movies that were too intense for little kids, but not naughty enough to be rated R. This teens-vs.-commies actioner was history's first official PG-13 release, although the Matt Dillon vehicle The Flamingo Kid, released later that year, was actually the first to receive the rating.
  7. First film to use video assist: THE BELLBOY (1960). Jerry Lewis has long been credited as the "inventor" of video assist - basically, setting up a video camera to see what a film camera sees, so that the director and crew can see how the shots look well before the film is developed. Lewis attached a video lens next to his film lens for this slapstick comedy. But the first feature to use true video assist - in which a beam-splitter takes the image from the actual 35mm camera and displays it on a live video monitor - was Blake Edwards' 1968 comedy The Party. Of course, now that most features are shot digitally, the "video assist" is becoming moot.
  8. First film to have a commercially released soundtrack: SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937). The Disney classic was, more notably, also the first cel animated feature, the first color animated feature, and the first American animated feature.
  9. First film to employ the"555" prefix for fake phone numbers: PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! (1962). That goofy practice of using "555" for a movie character's phone number - the idea being that, since no private citizen has a phone number beginning with 555, weirdo moviegoers won't dial the number they see on the screen and harass anybody - started here, in this B movie directed by and starring Ray Milland.