"The Fourth Wall", for the uninitiated, is the wall that separates the movie from the audience, allowing the audience to be spectators to the events depicted. Famously, the Fourth Wall was demolished like the end of a Pink Floyd concert in the 1986 film, Ferris Beuller's Day Off.

In the movie, the main character spent almost as much time talking directly to the audience as he did interacting with the film's other characters, filling us in on plot lines, thoughts and emotions so we got a deeper understanding of what was going on in the movie.

What I'm wondering is, when was this device first used in film? While I'm not film student or expert, I can not think of a single movie prior to FBDO where the device is used. I know John Cusack's character in High Fidelity did it often, and it was used throughout Fight Club, but it seems such an obvious method to really clue the audience in on what the character(s) is/are feeling. Or is that just the reason not to; then you leave little to interpretation?

  • I think with such fourth wall breaks like in Ferris Bueller's Day Off there's always a thin line between being fascinating and feeling pretentious. Sometimes it just feels like cheap storytelling if done badly. There are much more interesting and subtle ways for inner monologues, like Dune or The Beguiled employed them. Just my two cents, interesting question though, but I have a strong doubt that Ferris Bueller really started this.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 17:00
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    If this question is strictly about breaking the fourth wall, and not specifically about the forth wall and film... I'm reasonably sure that Shakespeare had actors speaking to the audience in many of his plays.
    – Bon Gart
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 20:43
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    If we're not restricting this to film, then I'd argue that the fourth wall has been broken since the origin of theater in Greece (usually by the chorus, though arguably that's more akin to having a narrator). Also, what exactly do you mean by "demolished like the end of a Pink Floyd concert"? I mean, I guess you could be thinking of the destruction of The Wall at the end of "The Wall"... Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 21:43
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    At minimum you could date it to Denis Diderot, who originated the term "fourth wall" (mid 1700s).
    – Joe
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 21:59
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    It's not at all new or novel. Many silent films did it. So did Shakespeare. So did others before that... Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 22:01

1 Answer 1


According to TVTropes, the first use of this was in 1895!:

[The breaking the fourth wall trope] dates back to the Lumière brothers and the first films made for publicviewing in 1895—specifically, The Photographical Congress Arrives in Lyon, in which several of the photographers wave or doff their hats to the camera.

Waving hat

You can see more in the video.

If you don't like that though, the second oldest is Hellzapoppin' (1941):

The characters comment on other plots, they talk to the audience, they talk to the projectionist (and in fact, when the shot goes out of frame, they confront the projectionist, who it turned out was getting a little action in his booth), they deconstruct myths, they talk to still photographs (which come alive), they pause the phrase, mock the movie they're watching and the movie they're in (including muting the soundtrack and making jokes over it MST3K-style), criticize the writing, talk about their roles, use double-exposures deliberately, control the direction, and have a running joke with overlaid wording that "Stinky Miller" needs to go to the lobby because his mother is looking for him, and the characters stop in the middle of a musical number to yell at Stinky, who eventually (in silhouette), gets up and leaves. Whew.

- TVTropes on Hellzapoppin'

The projectionist fight scene described above can be seen here.

  • 2
    But was there actually any plot to that movie, or was it more like newsreel footage? Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 16:27
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    @JohnnyBones Wikipedia calls it a documentary film Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 16:30
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    Wow, that second example sounds like a complete fourthwallbreakgasm.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 17:06
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    @JohnnyBones It also includes one of the most famous (and awesome) swing-dancing scenes in music history (specifically the dancing scene in the kitchen). MrLore, I'm pretty sure documentaries don't have a fourth wall to break. Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 21:40
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    Watching it now. Classic. They utilize the concept of "Now Time" (a la Spaceballs) and re-wind the film at one point. This, to use Napoleon's word, really is a fourthwallbreakgasm. I'm somewhat surprised it's not more famous for being this groundbreaking. Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 11:23

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