Hollywood as History

American Film in the Silent Era

Some film historians, like Lewis Jacobs and David Robinson, have argued that early silent films revolved around "characteristically working class settings," and expressed the interests of the poor in their struggles with the rich and powerful. Other scholars maintain that early movies drew largely upon conventions, stock characters, and routines derived from vaudeville, popular melodrama, Wild West shows, comic strips, and other forms of late nineteenth century popular entertainment. Given the fact thousands of films were released during the silent era and relatively few have survived, it is dangerous to generalize about movie content. Nevertheless, certain statements about these films do seem warranted.

American films were born in an age of reform, and many early silent movies took as their subject matter the major social and moral issues of the Progressive era: birth control, child labor, divorce, immigration, political corruption, poverty, prisons, prostitution, and women's suffrage. The tone of these films varied widely - some were realistic and straightforward; others treated their subjects with sentimentality or humor; and many transformed complex social issues into personal melodramas. Yet there can be no doubt that many silent films dealt at least obliquely with the dominant issues of the time.

Although many Americans today think of the films of the silent era as relics of a simpler, more innocent age, in fact more serious social and political themes lurked "behind the mask of innocence." As Kevin Brownlow has demonstrated, despite their well-dressed tramps and child-like waifs, many early silent films were preoccupied with such broad issues as the the sources of crime, the nature of political corruption, shifting sexual norms, and the changing role of women. The silent screen offered vivid glimpses of urban tenements and ethnic ghettoes; the screen was filled with gangsters, loan sharks, drug addicts, and panderers and provided a graphic record of "how the other half lives."

In addition, many early films were laced with anti-authority themes, poking fun at bumbling cops, corrupt politicians, and intrusive upper-class reformers. Highly physical slapstick comedy offered a particularly potent vehicle of social criticism, spoofing the pretensions of the wealthy and presenting sympathetic portraits of the poor. Mack Sennett, one of the most influential directors of silent comedy, later recalled the themes of his films: "I especially liked the reduction of authority to absurdity, the notion that sex could be funny, and the bold insults hurled at Pretension."

Many films of the early silent era dealt with gender relations. Before 1905, as Kathy Peiss has argued, movie screens were filled with salacious sexual imagery and risque humor, drawn from burlesque halls and vaudeville theaters. Early films offered many glimpses of women disrobing or of passionate kisses. As the movies' female audience grew, sexual titillation and voyeurism persisted. But an ever increasing number of film dealt with the changing work and sexual roles of women in a more sophisticated manner. While D.W. Griffith's films presented an idealized picture of the frail Victorian child-woman, and showed an almost obsessive preoccupation with female honor and chastity, other silent movies presented quite different images of femininity. These ranged from the exotic, sexually aggressive vamp to the athletic, energetic "serial queen"; the street smart urban working gal, who repels the sexual advances of her lascivious boss; and cigarette-smoking, alcohol drinking chorus girls or burlesque queens.

In the late teens and '20s, as Lary May has demonstrated, the movies began to shed their Victorian moralism, sentimentality, and reformism and increasingly expressed new themes: glamour, sophistication, exoticism, urbanity, and sex appeal. New kinds of movie stars appeared: the mysterious sex goddess, personified by Greta Garbo; the passionate, hot-blooded Latin lover, epitomized by Rudolph Valentino; and the flapper, first brought to the screen by Colleen Moore, with her bobbed hair, skimpy skirts, and incandescent vivacity. New genres also appeared: swashbuckling adventures; sophisticated sex comedies revolving around the issue of marital fidelity; romantic dramas examining the manners and morals of the well-bred and well-to-do; and tales of "flaming youth" and the new sexual freedom.

During the 1920s, a sociologist named Herbert Blumer, interviewed students and young workers to assess the impact of movies on their lives, and concluded that the effect was to reorient their lives away from ethnic and working class communities toward a broader consumer culture. Observed one high school student: "The day-dreams instigated by the movies consist of clothes, ideas on furnishings and manners." Said an African- American student: "The movies have often made me dissatisfied with my neighborhood because when I see a movie, the beautiful castle, palace,...and beautiful house, I wish my home was something like these." Hollywood not only expressed popular values, aspirations, and fantasies, it also promoted cultural change.

The Movies as a Cultural Battleground

Reformers of the Progressive era took a highly ambivalent view of the movies. Some praised movies as a benign alternative to the saloon. Others viewed nickelodeons and movie theaters as breeding grounds of crime and sexual promiscuity. In 1907, the Chicago Tribune threw its editorial weight against the movies, declaring that they were "without a redeeming feature to warrant their existence...ministering to the lowest passions of childhood."

That year, Chicago established the nation's first censorship board, to protect its population "against the evil influence of obscene and immoral representations." Also in 1907, and again in 1908, New York's mayor, under pressure from various religious and reform groups, temporarily closed down all of the city's nickelodeons and movie theaters.

Many middle-class vice crusaders regarded the movies were horror and struggled to regulate the new medium. A presidential study concluded that films encouraged "illicit lovemaking and iniquity." A Worcester, Massachusetts newspaper described the city's movie theaters as centers of delinquent activity, and reported that female gang members "confessed that their early tendencies toward evil came from seeing moving pictures." Several bills were introduced in Congress calling for movie censorship.

The drive to censor films spread from Chicago to other municipalities and states, especially after a 1915 Supreme Court ruling that movies were not protected by the First Amendment because they "were a business pure and simple...not to be regarded as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion." Eager to combat the trend toward local censorship, movie manufacturers worked with moral reformers in New York to establish the voluntary Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures in 1909, to review the movies' treatment of violence, drugs, prostitution, and, above all, sexual immorality (such as "over-passionate love scenes; stimulating close dancing; unnecessary bedroom scenes in negligee; excessively low-cut gowns; [and] undue or suggestive display of the person").

After World War I, a series of sex scandals raised renewed threats of censorship or boycotts. William Desmond Taylor, a director, was found murdered under suspicious circumstances; actor Wallace Reid committed suicide amid allegations of drug addiction; and comedian Fatty Arbuckle was acquitted of rape and complicity in murder. To clean up Hollywood's image, the industry banned Arbuckle and a number of other individuals implicated in scandals, and appointed Will Hays, President Warren Harding's Postmaster General, to head their trade organization. Hays introduced a voluntary code of standards.

The Rise of Hollywood and the Arrival of Sound

In cinema's earliest days, the film industry was based in the nation's theatrical center, New York, and most films were made in New York or New Jersey, although a few were shot in Chicago, Florida, and elsewhere. Beginning in 1908, however, a growing number of filmmakers located in southern California, drawn by cheap land and labor, the ready accessibility of varied scenery, and a climate ideal for year-round outdoor filming. Contrary to popular mythology, moviemakers did not move to Hollywood to escape the film trust; the first studio to move to Hollywood, Selig, was actually a trust member.

By the early 1920s, Hollywood had become the world's film capital. It produced virtually all films show in the United States and received 80 percent of the revenue from films shown abroad. During the '20s, Hollywood bolstered its position as world leader by recruiting many of Europe's most talented actors and actresses, like Greta Garbo and Hedy Lamarr, directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg, as well as camera operators, lighting technicians, and set designers,By the end of the decade, Hollywood claimed to be the nation's fifth largest industry, attracting 83 cents out of every dollar Americans spent on amusement.

Hollywood had also come to symbolize "the new morality" of the 1920s--a mixture of extravagance, glamour, hedonism, and fun. Where else but Hollywood would an actress like Gloria Swanson bath in a solid gold bathtub or a screen cowboy like Tom Mix have his named raised atop his house in six foot high letters.

During the 1920s, movie attendance soared. By the middle of the decade, 50 million people a week went to the movies - the equivalent of half the nation's population. In Chicago, in 1929, theaters had enough seats for half the city's population to attend a movie each day.

As attendance rose, the movie-going experience underwent a profound change. During the twentieth century's first two decades, movie going tended to conform to class and ethnic divisions. Urban workers attended movie houses located in their own working class and ethnic neighborhoods, where admission was extremely inexpensive (averaging just 7 cents in the during the teens), and a movie was often accompanied by an amateur talent show or a performance by a local ethnic troupe. These working class theaters were rowdy, high-spirited centers of neighborhood sociability, where mothers brought their babies and audiences cheered, jeered, shouted, whistled, and stamped their feet.

The theaters patronized by the middle class were quite different. Late in the new century's first decade, theaters in downtown or middle class neighborhoods became increasingly luxurious. At first many of these theaters were designed in the same styles as many other public buildings, but by the mid-teens movie houses began feature French Renaissance, Egyptian, Moorish, and other exotic decors. Worcester, Massachusetts's Strand Theater boasted have "red plush seats," "luxurious carpets," "rich velour curtains," "finely appointed toilet rooms," and a $15,000 organ. Unlike the working class movie houses, which showed films continuously, these high class theaters had specific show times and well-groomed, uniformed ushers to enforce standards of decorum.

During the late-'20s, independent neighborhood theaters catering to a distinct working class audience were bought up by regional and national chains. As a result, the movie-going experience became more uniform, with working class and middle class theaters offering the same programs. Especially after the introduction of the "talkies," many working-class movie houses shut down, unable to meet the cost of converting to sound.

For decades, engineers had searched for a practical technology to add synchronized recorded sound to the movies. In the 1890s, Thomas Edison tried unsuccessfully to popularize the "kinetophone--which combined a kinetoscope with a phonograph. In 1923, Lee De Forest, an American inventor, demonstrated the practicality of placing a soundtrack directly on a film strip, presenting a newsreel interview with President Calvin Coolidge and musical accompaniments to several films. But the film industry showed remarkably little interest in sound, despite the growing popularity of radio. Hollywood feared the high cost of converting its production and exhibition to sound technology.

Warner Brothers, a struggling industry newcomer, turned to sound as a way to compete with its larger rivals. A prerecorded musical sound track eliminated the expense of live entertainment. In 1926, Warner Brothers released the film Don Juan--the first film with a synchronized film score--along with a program of talking shorts. The popularity of The Jazz Singer, which was released in 1927, erased any doubts about the popular appeal of sound, and within a year, 300 theaters were wired for sound.

The arrival of sound produced a sharp upsurge in movie attendance, which jumped from 50 million a week in the mid-20s to 110 million in 1929. But it also produced a number of fundamental transformations in the movies themselves. As Robert Ray has shown, sound made the movies more American. The words that Al Jolson used in The Jazz Singer to herald the arrival of sound in the movies - "You ain't heard nothing yet" - embodied the new slangy, vernacular tone of the talkies. Distinctive American accents and inflections quickly appeared on the screen, like James Cagney's New Yorkese or Gary Cooper's Western drawl. The introduction of sound also encouraged new film genres - like the musical, the gangster film, and comedies that relied on wit rather than slapstick.

In addition, the talkies dramatically changed the movie-going experience, especially for the working class. Where many working class audiences had provided silent films with a spoken dialogue, movie-goers were now expected to remain quiet. As one film historian has observed: "The talking audience for silent pictures became a silent audience for talking pictures. "Moreover, the stage shows and other forms of live entertainment that had appeared in silent movie houses increasingly disappeared, replaced by newsreels and animated shorts.

The Movies Meet the Great Depression

In 1934, Will Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, said that "No medium has contributed more greatly than the film to the maintenance of the national morale during a period featured by revolution, riot and political turmoil in other countries." During the Great Depression, Hollywood played a valuable psychological and ideological role, providing reassurance and hope to a demoralized nation. Even at the Depression's depths 60 to 80 million Americans attended the movies each week, and, in the face of doubt and despair, films helped sustain national morale.

Although the movie industry considered itself Depression- proof, Hollywood was no more immune from the Depression's effects than any other industry. To finance the purchase of movie theaters and the conversion to sound, the studios had tripled their debts during the mid- and late-'20s to $410 million. As a result, the industry's very viability seemed in question. By 1933, movie attendance and industry revenues had fallen by forty percent. To survive, the industry trimmed salaries and production costs, and closed the doors of a third of the nation's theaters. To boost attendance, theaters resorted to such gimmicks as lower admission prices (cut by as much as 25 cents), double bills, give-aways of free dishes, and Bank Night--in which customer who received a lucky number won a cash prize.

Why did Depression America go to the movies- Escapism is what most people assume. At the movies they could forget their troubles for a couple of hours. Depression films, one left-wing critic maintained, were a modern form of bread and circuses, distracting Americans from their problems, reinforcing older values, and dampening political radicalism.

Yet movies were more than mere escapism. Most films of the depression years were grounded in the social realities of the time. The most realistic films were social problem films--like I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang - "torn from the headlines," usually by Warner Brothers or Columbia Pictures. Yet even the most outrageously extravagant Busby Berkeley musicals - portraying chorus girls as flowers or mechanical windup dolls - were generally set against recognizable depression backdrops.

The kinds of movies that Hollywood produced during the depression underwent sharp changes as the public mood shifted. During the depression's earliest years, a profound sense of despair was reflected in the kinds of characters Americans watched on the screen: a succession of Tommy Gun-toting gangsters, haggard prostitutes, sleazy backroom politicians, cynical journalists, and shyster lawyers. The screen comedies released at the depression's depths expressed an almost anarchistic disdain for traditional institutions and conventions. In the greatest comedies of the early depression, the Marx Brothers spoofed everything from patriotism (in Duck Soup) to universities (in Horse Feathers); W.C. Fields ridiculed families and children; and Mae West used sexual innuendo and double entendres to make fun of the middle class code of sexual propriety, with lines like "When a girl goes wrong, men go right after her."

The gangster pictures and sexually suggestive comedies of the early '30s provoked outrage--and threats of boycotts--from many Protestant and Catholic religious groups. In 1934, Hollywood's producers' association responded by setting up a bureau (later known as the "Breen Office") to review every script that the major studios proposed to shoot and to screen every film before it was released to ensure that the picture did not violate the organization's "Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures." The Production Code, drafted by a Jesuit priest, the Father Daniel Lord, had been originally adopted in 1930, but the producers had regarded it as a public relations device, not as a code of censorship.

But in 1933, the newly appointed apostolic delegate to the U.S. Catholic Church, the Most Reverend Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, called on Catholics to launch "a united and vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema, which has become a deadly menace to morals." Many Catholics responded by forming the Legion of Decency, which soon had 9 million members pledged to boycott films that the Legion's rating board condemned.

Threatened by a realistic threat of boycotts, the producers decided to enforce the production code and placed one of their employees, Joseph I. Breen, in charge. The code prohibited nudity, profanity, white slavery, miscegenation, "excessive and lustful kissing," and "scenes of passion" that "stimulate the lower and baser element." It also forbade Hollywood from glorifying crime or adultery. To enforce the code, the Breen Office was empowered to grant or withhold a seal of approval, and without a seal, a movie could not be played in the major theater chains.

The Breen Office dramatically altered the character of films in the later 1930s. It had at least one positive effect: It led Hollywood to cast more actresses in roles as independent career women, instead of as mere sex objects. More negatively, it encouraged moviemakers to evade the harsher realities of Depression-era life and to shun controversial political and moral issues. It also contributed to what Maury Klein has called a "stylization of technique" as directors and screenwriters searched for subtle, creative, and often witty ways to treat sexuality and violence while avoiding censorship.

A renewed sense of optimism generated by the New Deal combined with Breen Office censorship to produce new kinds of films in the second half of the Depression decade. G-men, detectives, western heroes and other defenders of law increasingly replaced gangsters. Realistic Warner Brothers exposes rapidly declined in number. Instead audiences enjoyed Frank Capra's comedies and dramas in which a "little man" stands up against corruption. The complex word-play of the Marx Brothers and Mae West increasingly gave way to a new comic genre--the screwball comedy. Movies like It Happened One Night or My Man Godfrey, which traced the antics of zany eccentrics, presented, in Pauline Kael's words,

"Americans' idealized view of themselves--breezy, likable, sexy, gallant, and maybe just a little harebrained."

As Andrew Bergman has shown, the fantasy world of the movies played a critical social and psychological function for Depression era Americans: In the face of economic disaster, it kept alive a belief in the possibility of individual success, portrayed a government capable of protecting its citizens from external threats, and sustained a vision of America as a classless society. Again and again, Hollywood repeated the same formulas: A poor boy from the slums uses crime as a perverted ladder of success. A back row chorus girl rises to the lead through luck and pluck. A G-man restores law and order. A poor boy and a rich girl meet, go through wacky adventures, and fall in love. Out of these simple plots, Hollywood restored faith in individual initiative, in the efficacy of government, and in a common American identity transcending social class.

Source:  Digital History