As photography gained popularity in the mid-19th century, several inventors began experimenting with techniques for turning still photographs into “moving pictures.” These short, silent films were shown at fairgrounds and music halls, or as openers or closers during vaudeville shows. Before “talkies” — productions with the addition of synchronized dialogue — the films were accompanied by music, lectures, and audience participation. As the moving pictures became longer and more sophisticated, they evolved from an exciting novelty to enjoy at the end of a vaudeville show to the main event at luxurious “picture palaces.” With the new form of entertainment available to the public came a new vocabulary with which to discuss it.
The term “silver screen” is sometimes used as a general reference for the film industry, but it’s actually related to a type of projection screen that was developed in the early 20th century. As the popularity of motion pictures grew, inventors worked on enhancing the way they were presented to audiences. They discovered that the use of a highly reflective metallic paint made with silver or aluminum offered a brighter, sharper image. Modern movie screens are most often white or gray, though silver-colored screens are still used to reflect more light and enhance the contrast of 3D films requiring polarized glasses.
While the “red-carpet treatment” was first put in use in 1902 by the New York Central Railroad to direct people boarding the 20th Century Limited train, the Academy Awards didn’t roll out the red carpet for celebrities until 1961. Five years later in 1966, the Oscars were broadcast in color for the first time, allowing viewers at home a glimpse of their favorite celebrities “walking the red carpet” in their finest evening wear. “Red carpet” has been synonymous with movies and Hollywood ever since.
“Let’s go see a motion picture” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue like “Let’s go see a movie,” but the former term hearkens back to the early days of cinematography and the ability to create “photographs in motion” by viewing them in a series. While both "motion picture" and "moving picture" were originally used to refer to the media, the latter fell out of use as the quality of the films improved.
“Movie” is the colloquial version of “motion picture” and has been in use since 1908. In 1910, the Essanay Film Company hosted a competition to coin a term that could replace “motion picture theater” and be used to describe “motion picture entertainments.” The winning entry was “photoplay,” which became the name of a motion-picture fan magazine published from 1911 to 1980. But while “photoplay” was chosen because the contest judges felt it aligned moving pictures with uplifting cultural pursuits such as theater and opera, the slang term “movie” endured. Meanwhile, in Europe, the preferred term was (and still is) “cinema.”
In the early years of moviemaking, the performers were uncredited because producers were worried they would demand larger salaries if audiences knew who they were. In fact, once they began to be credited in the 1910s, actors and actresses developed large fan followings. While the term “star” has been in use since as early as 1824 to refer to popular theater and music performers, the mass medium of film offered bigger, brighter, and more bankable stars.
While it’s recognizable now as a failed movie-rental chain, this word was briefly used in the 1950s to refer to a racist practice of a real estate agent or broker convincing primarily white homeowners to sell their property cheaply due to the fear of people of another ethnic or socio-economic group (primarily Black people) moving into the neighborhood. The goal of blockbusting was to earn a profit by reselling at a higher price to the incoming group.
However, the word “blockbuster” originally referred to a large bomb capable of destroying an entire city block. It first appeared in 1942 news reports about Allied forces bombing key industrial targets in fascist Italy. As the word continued to appear in media reports, it became a metaphor for something shocking or surprising. “Blockbuster” was first used to describe a movie in 1943, when a trade advertisement declared the war-themed film Bombardier, “the block-buster of all action-thrill-service shows!” Soon, the word became associated with a film’s commercial appeal, with Variety calling 1953 “a year of box office blockbusters” because 135 films grossed over a million dollars. Today, “blockbuster” is used not only to describe a commercially successful film, but also to reference a particular type of movie: an action-packed summer release.
Featured image credit: RgStudio/ iStock