The 1920s were silent – but only as far as the movies. It was actually a loud and raucous decade, but one that, despite our image of quaint innocence, was actually strangely close to our own era socially, politically, and as regards the economy. The movies captured some of that, either intentionally or incidentally. But not all of it.
Over the next three posts were going to discuss a few films from the 1920s, including The Racket (1928), The Cocoanuts (1929), Our Dancing Daughters (1928), and Our Modern Maidens (1929). The latter two movies, both starring Joan Crawford, leave us with the impression of the decade being dominated by flappers. Perhaps the most well-known chronicler of that era, the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Joan:
Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.
The hedonistic young woman of the 1920s with the rouged knees may have shocked her parents, but she has come down to us as a more or less comic cliché. She was called a “modern.” She has been interpreted, and innocuously, many decades later, in the film Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and The Boy Friend (1971).
Both movies are musicals, and interestingly, while The Boy Friend had its origins as a Broadway hit starring Julie Andrews in 1954, Thoroughly Modern Millie, which starred Julie Andrews, ended up being a Broadway hit in 2002, taking the opposite direction. The movie The Boy Friend starred Twiggy, whose pencil-thin figure and wide eyes epitomized the flapper. Glenda Jackson plays an uncredited role as the stage star who breaks her foot, for whom Twiggy must go on as an understudy. That movie is a rather heavy-handed spoof of early Hollywood films, overladen with Busby Berkeley fantasy sequences. Some dialogue, such as when Twiggy is admonished that she must go out a youngster and come back a star, are taken pretty much verbatim from 42nd Street (1933).
The movie lacks the subtler, silly charm that Thoroughly Modern Millie had which, along with Miss Andrews starred James Fox, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing, and John Gavin – who I really think was the funniest of the bunch just by being straight-faced through it all. The wonderful Beatrice Lillie appeared here in her last film. Being spoofs, they are more interested in exaggeration, as is the nature of parody, and though they are fun to watch, they are about is genuine a view of the 1920s as mock apple pie is to real apple pie. Perhaps, though, they were the vanguard of the 1970s nostalgia craze.
The 1920s is remembered for being The Era of Wonderful Nonsense, The Jazz Age. Often films made much later that are set in that decade, such as The Helen Morgan Story (1957), which we discussed here, are jammed with slangy dialogue and visual triggers like hip flasks as a shortcut to jog something in our collective memory about the decade.
One of the few movies made after the dust of that decade had settled that actually remembered the era not with nostalgia but with chagrin and something like regret was The Roaring Twenties (1939), which we discussed here. The movies actually made in the 1920s, however, especially the freewheeling chaos of Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton films, seem to celebrate the technology that shaped the era – the phones, the cars, the flickers. The antics may be as remote to our present day as a black-and-white silent Felix the Cat cartoon to a modern-day CGI animated feature, but this fascination with technology and consumer products should key us into a mindset that was closer to our own than we realize. It wasn't the only similarity to our era.
Though we recall 1920 as the year women won the right to vote – and all the bold flappers were called “moderns,” the decade was not really as progressive as it may seem. A generation of expatriates, writers, artists, musicians, composers, were living out their dreams overseas because of what they regarded as stifling and overbearing conservatism at home, including its most virulent and perhaps, to them, objectionable edict: Prohibition.
It was the era of the Palmer raids, the red scare and the wholesale roundup and deportation of immigrant aliens. The National Origins Act restricted immigration. Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death in the electric chair after a trial that left much room for doubt about their actual guilt, but the climate of the red scare and sudden animosity toward the foreign-born usurped any interest in finding out the truth. As poet Edna St. Vincent Millay noted:
[The] men were castaways upon our shore, and we, an ignorant savage tribe, have put them to death because their speech and their manners were different from our own, and because to the untutored mind that which is strange is in its infancy ludicrous, but in its prime evil, dangerous, and to be done away with.
It was the era of the Scopes trial when a high school biology teacher was tried in court for teaching anything but creationism.
It saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to its most powerful point, most especially in Indiana, with resultant beatings, lynchings, and shootings. Benito Mussolini founded a fascist regime in Italy, and Hitler began his fascist crusade, but we flirted with it, too, long before we met up with those devils in another generation.
The 1920s saw the rise of religious fundamentalism joined with materialism. President Harding spoke of returning to “normalcy” after World War I and yearned for an orderly, Calvinistic world that never existed. The word “normalcy” never existed before that, either; it was made up for the occasion.
Under a trio of Republican presidents there were restrictive tariffs, scandal most notably in the Harding administration, and a stock market run ruthlessly like a Ponzi scheme. The shareholders’ titanic profits took precedence over the workers’ meager share (though wages did increase during the 1920s, unlike our own era), and an expansion of credit and few restrictions led to a booming economy and a dizzying stock market bubble in the year 1928. Republicans controlled the Congress and the presidency through the decade that began with a depression and ended with one.
It was an era of pop heroes, perhaps the most famous of which was Charles A. Lindbergh, who flew the first solo trans-Atlantic flight. In another decade, he became involved in the America First committee and was a Nazi sympathizer. If we think of the 1920s only in terms of “Oh, you kid,” and “23-skidoo,” it may be that the silent movies, though only a fraction of which that were made have survived, have bequeathed to us the image of an “Era of Wonderful Nonsense.” There was a lot more going on off the set, and some of it quite serious. Movies had been around since the turn of the twentieth century, but the 1920s was the turning point that made film a huge part of our national psyche, yet the flickers didn’t catch everything that was going on.
One could say that our era is more like the 1920s than it is of any other decade in the past century. One film that resonates this is The Crowd (1928), which we discussed here in this previous post. This unflinching examination of a fellow whose failure to cope is summed up in one of its title cards, “We do not know how big the crowd is, and what opposition it is…until we get out of step with it.”
The excellent narrative history The Perils of Prosperity by historian William E. Leuchtenburg gives us many points on which to make the comparisons between that world and ours. Perhaps another reason why we are left mainly with lightweight images of flappers, speakeasies, and bathtub gin is that the door slammed shut very quickly on the Jazz Age in October 1929 when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. As Mr. Leuchtenburg remarks in a sympathetic if ominous epilogue: “Never was a decade snuffed out so quickly as the 1920s.”
Come back next Thursday, February 8th, when we’ll discuss The Racket (1928) about mobsters and political corruption—the first film to be produced by a young Howard Hughes.