Nine Unheralded Firsts in Film

First Hollywood feature in color: The Toll of the Sea

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 here 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 almost simultaneously all over the world, it's hard to nail down many true "firsts". The earliest color movies were shot in black and white, 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.
  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 screening venues for his controversial new film, he made 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 done this before. Variety heard about Kubrick's number crunching breakthrough, asked him for advice on how they could do the same, and that's why today's media obsesses over weekend box office hauls.
  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 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. Most films soon adopted this practice; now some of these crawls are over ten minutes long.
  4. First film to offer profit sharing for its star: WINCHESTER '73 (1950). More people seem to know about this than I expected. 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 salary for his work on Winchester '73 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. I was a graphic designer during the early days of the World Wide Web, and I would work for the companies that produced these two sites, respectively: 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 the first, yet despite my becoming close friends with the guys who were actually there, none could accurately tell me the date that each site was launched. This matter may never be settled.
  6. First film rated PG-13: RED DAWN (1984). Thanks to certain gruesome PG movies in 1984, namely 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 preview the footage 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's lens and displays it on a live video monitor – was Blake Edwards's 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). The 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 can't dial the number they see on the screen and harass anybody – began here, in this B-movie directed by and starring Ray Milland.