The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History

By Lewis Jacobs | Go to book overview

XX
FILMS OF THE POST-WAR DECADE

THE movies produced between 1919 and 1929 are eloquent social documents on a lively era in American life. So thoroughly does the spirit of the decade saturate the films that they are distinguished perhaps more for their innocent reflection of contemporary life than for their technical advances, remarkable though these were. This is true even in the case of such important directors as Erich von Stroheim, Fred Murnau, and Ernst Lubitsch. While valuable innovations in the motion picture craft were coming into being in Europe, Hollywood was content almost exclusively with titillating the senses of the increasingly prosperous American movie-goer.

The addition of the middle class and well-to-do to the movie audience, already apparent on America's entrance into the World War, was now complete. After 1919 motion pictures with rare exceptions--notably Charlie Chaplin's comedies--were made to please the middle class. The working man as a subject for films disappeared after the war, reappearing only when the depression reawakened interest in his milieu. It was the leisure class that now became the focus of the cinema: their life was mirrored on the celluloid slickly and ingratiatingly.

Recovering from the excitement of the Armistice, the public soon became aware that the so-called victory was an empty honor; the war, a business maneuver. The shattering of principles, the loss of confidence in leaders, the liberals' lack of resolution at the crucial time all induced a contempt for political progressivism. Prohibition became a federal law; the "Red scare" reached unprecedented extremes in the Palmer Raids; intolerance was rampant.

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