American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variations

American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variations

American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variations

American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variations


During the 1920s, sound revolutionized the motion picture industry and cinema continued as one of the most significant and popular forms of mass entertainment in the world. Film studios were transformed into major corporations, hiring a host of craftsmen and technicians including cinematographers, editors, screenwriters, and set designers. The birth of the star system supported the meteoric rise and celebrity status of actors including Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Rudolph Valentino while black performers (relegated to "race films") appeared infrequently in mainstream movies. The classic Hollywood film style was perfected and significant film genres were established: the melodrama, western, historical epic, and romantic comedy, along with slapstick, science fiction, and fantasy.

In ten original essays, American Cinema of the 1920s examines the film industry's continued growth and prosperity while focusing on important themes of the era.


“It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess …”

—F. Scott Fitzgerald

An Age of Miracles

Writing in November 1931, F. Scott Fitzgerald stated: “It is too soon to write about the Jazz Age with perspective” (13). It may have been then, but it is not now. Furthermore, there are many aspects of the decade that make it an especially fascinating one to chronicle—both in terms of American cultural and film history.

As for the first realm, it was an age of great drama, book-ended, as it was, between two cataclysmic events—World War I and the stock market crash. Beyond that, it begins and ends with a depression (though the earlier crisis is less spectacular than the later). Furthermore, the decade has been seen as a highly representative one. As Joseph Wood Krutch noted at the decade’s finale: “The 1920s illuminates fundamental issues of the twentieth century” (12). Years later, Nathan Miller came to a similar conclusion: “It is indeed a judgment call to select one decade to describe the warp and woof of American history, but the 1920s present themselves admirably for such treatment. To an astonishing extent, the 1920s resemble our own era, at the turn of the twenty-first century…. Much of what we consider contemporary actually began in the Twenties” (1). Likewise, the classical Hollywood cinema also had its roots in the twenties: the studio and star systems, talking pictures, color photography, bona fide theaters, and the movies’ status as a major American industry. In fact, ever since, the fates of American society and the movies have been inextricably entwined.

The twenties began on the heels of the Great War—a momentous global conflict pitting the United States and her allies (France, Britain, Russia, Italy) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey). This international catastrophe was to cast a long shadow on the decade that followed. As Frederick Lewis Allen observed at the time: “Since 1919 the circumstances of American life have been transformed” (1). Clearly, this . . .

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