The entertainment revolution

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Key individuals:

  • F Scott Fitzgerald & Zelda Fitzgerald
  • The It Girl, Clara Bow
  • Mary Pickford
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Duke Ellington
  • George Gershwin
  • Al Jolson
  • Cecil B DeMille
  • Charlie Chaplain, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers
  • Walt Disney
  • Mickey Mouse

Key concepts and colligations

  • Flappers
  • The Jazz Age
  • Syncopation, ragtime, boogie woogie
  • The Black Bottom, the Charleston
  • Warner Bros, MGM, United Artists
  • Hollywood & Beverley Hills

Key question: How far did Hollywood and the Entertainment industry both reflect and influence society?

    Music gave its name to the age – the Jazz Age. Linked to the growth of an alternate generation, was the growth of a brand of music that emerged from an alternative, black culture. This lead to new dances being created which further angered the older generation. The Charleston, One Step and Black Bottom were only for the young and the last one angered the establishment by name alone.

    The most famous jazzmen were Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Benny Goodman. The combination of the new music, new dances and new fashions outraged many:

    “The music is sensuous, the female is only half dressed and the motions may not be described in a family newspaper. Suffice it to say that there are certain houses appropriate for such dances but these houses have been closed by law.” The Catholic Telegraph.

    At the ‘high’ culture end of the culture spectrum, evidence that jazz music had emerged as a serious art, was the work of composer George Gershwin, whose piano concerto ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ epitomises the 1920s. Here is a clip from 1980s film by Woody Allen, Manhattan, which uses the music in its opening sequence:

    Black musicians became hot property in the 1920s and many were signed up to make gramophone recordings. Their fame was spread further by the appearance of jazz music in movies like ‘Steamboat Willie’ (1928). Later, as talkies became more common, jazz musicians would increasingly feature.


    The 1920s made Hollywood and to a certain extent, Hollywood made the 1920s. Up to 100 million people a week went to the movies. The movies were a place where some of the great developments of the period met: technology, jazz, consumerism, race, women’s emancipation to name but a few.

    The 1920s was the era that established film as one of the three key art forms of the 20th century (Jazz/popular music and Televisions being the others). In this period, many of the key genres first appeared:

    • Gangster movies (e.g. the Racket (1928), the Racketeer (1929) Gang War (1928)),
    • the melodrama (e.g. My Best Girl starring Mary Pickford, 1927)
    • the Western (e.g. The Broncho Kid, starring Hoot Gibson, 1920)
    • the Detective story (e.g. The Voice of the city (1929)),
    • the Horror film (e.g. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)),
    • the Comedy and its various sub-genres (whose stars, Laural & Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers made countless films during this period)
    • Action-adventure films (from swashbucklers to war movies, like Douglas Fairbanks’s The Mark of Zorro (1929))
    • Musicals were inaugurated with the era of the Talkies (e.g. Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer,
    • Biblical epic (e.g. Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments), indicating that Hollywood spoke to conservative as well as alternative audiences
    • Science-fiction (e.g. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920), The Man from Beyond (1922),and The Lost World (1925).

    Almost all of the major film studios were established the 1910s and 1920s. Five of the ‘big six’ Hollywood studios were established during this era: Paramount (1912), Universal Pictures (1912) Walt Disney (1923) Columbia (1924, now Sony), Metro Goldwyn Mayer or MGM (1924) and Warner Brothers, which was set up by 4 brothers who had emigrated from imperial Russia to Canada, and became the most important film producers in America by 1924). Other major companies included United Artists founded in 1919 by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith. RKO was also founded in 1928. The sixth of the ‘big six’, 20th Century Fox, was established in the early 1930s.

    Stars of Film

    Before the 1920s the stars of movies were rarely named (especially true for women) but by the 1920s stars were world famous. For many films, the star was more important than the film itself and they could earn a fortune. They lived flamboyant lives, lived in Beverley Hills and were no strangers to scandal. Slapstick comedy was dominated by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy and by Fatty Arbuckle whose career was ruined by a series of trials in 1921 and 1922 for the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe – he was acquitted but his career never recovered. His co-star, Mabel Normand, was also involved in scandals, including two murders!). The leading women were Clara Bow and Mary Pickford and the leading male star was Rudolf Valentino. When he died in 1926 aged just 31 people queued for miles to see his embalmed body and riots broke out. The stars cultivated in peoples minds the belief that you could succeed in America regardless of who you were. The person who the Flappers most looked up to was Clara Bow – the vamp in the film “It”.

    However, there were many other female stars embodying the culture of the ‘roaring twenties’, including: Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks,Gloria Swanson, Colleen Moore, Marion Davies, Anita Page, Olive Thomas, Pola Negri, Norma Shearer, Norma Talmadge, Betty Compson, Myrna Loy, Dorothy Sebastian, Anna May Wong . The most famous of them was undoubtedly Mary Pickford who was famous for playing child roles even though she was a glamorous and sophisticated woman. The following video makes it easy to see why they would have made such an impression upon young men and women in the 1920s and why the stars of film came to define their age. As you watch the film can you identify six characteristics of the women that helped define the age in which they lived:

    Many silent screen stars lost their jobs when the talkies came into fashion after 1927, as their voices sounded too strange or their accents were difficult to understand. The first “talkie” – “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson – encapsulates the racial dilemmas of the 1920s – a film that celebrated jazz, but sung by a white singer who ‘blacked-up’. It illustrates influence of Jazz on Hollywood and the role of Hollywood in maintaining racial stereotypes.


    Besides human stars, the 1920s saw the emergence of cartoon stars – and in particular Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Following the 1927 sensation The Jazz Singer, Disney used synchronized sound on ‘Steamboat Willie’, to create the first sound cartoon:



    In addition, to Jazz culture, the 1920s saw a revolution in sports, partly because people had more free time thanks to new machinery and the economic boom. In particular, baseball, boxing, tennis and golf became enormously popular. Stadiums such as the Yankee Stadium (1923) were erected, and Madison Square Garden was rebuilt in 1925 in order to hold sporting events, e.g. boxing, ice hockey and basketball.

    Thanks to the radio, events could be broadcast live across the USA as they happened. The effect of this was to generate huge enthusiasm about sport and increase the popularity of the radio too.

    Sports became a profitable business, attracting more and more people. Coca-Cola was the first company to sponsor the Olympic Games in 1928. The appeal of the icons of the time, heroes such as baseball player Babe Ruth and boxer Jack Dempsey, attracted an increasing amount of people to go and watch organised sports.

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