Almost from the beginning when the first movies were shot on the back lots of studios in New Jersey and New York, long before there was a Hollywood, film has been our favorite way to tell a story. Drama films are movies that focus primarily on characters, in contrast to other genres like action films where the cinematic story is purely plot-driven.
The first film dramas were passion plays, scenes from the martyrdom of Christ or other historical figures. The Edison Company’s Kinetoscope production “The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots,” an early exercise in continuity in which Mary was seemingly beheaded before filmgoers’ eyes, left audiences gasping and begging for more.
The first epic drama was D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”, a 1915 silent film that introduced narrative techniques like close-ups and jump-cuts, an integral part of movie story-telling today.
The advent of sound technology in the late 1920s changed the way movie stories were told. Dialogue carried films between dramatic scenes and action gave way to explication and banter. Sophisticated films like “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) and “Citizen Kane” (1941) gave filmgoers insight into people and events far removed from their daily lives. The suspension of disbelief was made all that much easier in the late 1930s when Technicolor allowed filmmakers to depict the world as the audience actually saw it – in actual color.
America’s entry in the 1940s diverted the public’s imagination away from stories of imaginary characters to the more compelling needs of their nation. Film drama at its finest did not see a resurgence until the 1960s when movies became reflections of the era’s complex social issues as in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) and “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962.)
The film dramas of the last thirty years are as varied as the filmmakers who created them. From the Byzantine tapestry of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (arguably the greatest film drama ever made) to the murky moral conflict of Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” to the humanistic triumph of Stephen Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” film dramas continue to open a window into the soul into which filmgoers peer with curiosity and awe.