firms that were to rule
After World War I and into the early
Impresario Sid Grauman
built a number of movie palaces in
Pickford and Fairbanks:
America flocked to the movies to see the Queen of Hollywood, their sweetheart and the most popular star of the generation - "Our Mary" Mary Pickford, who was married to another great star, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Their wedding in March, 1920 was a major cultural event - she was presented with "Pickfair," a twenty-two room palatial mansion in Beverly Hills - marking the start of the movement of stars to lavish homes in W. Hollywood and the making of Hollywood royalty.
Fairbanks, Sr. also became an American legend after switching from light comedies
and starring in a series of exciting, costumed swashbuckler and adventure/fantasy
films, starting with The Mark of Zorro (1920), soon followed with his
expensively-financed adventure film, Robin Hood (1922), and the first
of four versions of the classic Arabian nights tale by director Raoul
Walsh, The Thief of Bagdad (1924), with magical
"flying carpet" special effects. Another first occurred in 1926
Other 1920s Box-Office Stars:
The top box-office stars in the 1920s included
Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, Tom Mix, Norma Talmadge,
Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Colleen Moore, Norma Shearer, John Barrymore,
Greta Garbo, Lon Chaney, Clara Bow, and Mary Pickford.
Hauntingly mysterious and divine, Greta Garbo's
first major starring vehicle was as a sultry temptress in torrid, prone love
scenes with off-screen lover John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil (1926).
Clara Bow, a red-haired, heavy-accented
famous screen couple, dubbed "
greatest male attraction in exotic, adventurous romantic pictures was handsome,
hot-blooded Italian import Rudolph Valentino, after his appearance in the
famous tango scene in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
(1921). Dubbed the "Latin Lover," the matinee idol symbolized
the forbidden and mysterious eroticism denied to American women in the 1920s
in such films as The Sheik (1921), the successful Blood and Sand
(1922), The Eagle (1925), or The Sheik's popular sequel The Son of the
Sheik (1926). The Son of the Sheik was a tremendous hit, released
at the time of Valentino's funeral. (His death came at the untimely age of
31, due to a perforated ulcer and peritonitis. Crowds in
Imports from Abroad:
Due to fewer restrictions and less strict
production schedules, European film-makers and their art flourished in the
mid-20s. A number of early movie stars and directors in Hollywood were hired
artists from abroad - Bela Lugosi,
successful German directors F. W. Murnau (invited
to Hollywood by William Fox) and Ernst Lubitsch
(he directed his first American film, Rosita starring Mary Pickford, in 1923), producer Alexander Korda,
director Michael Curtiz (recruited by Warners from Hungary), Greta Garbo,
director Rouben Mamoulian,
and more. Director Lubitsch's first American comedy
German expressionistic films with dark shadows, visual story-telling, and
angled shots in the early
1920s were to have a strong influence on the coming development of US films:
the surrealistic fantasy/horror
film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and
F. W. Murnau's classic vampire film (the first of
its kind) with Max Schreck - Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horrors (1922).
and The Docks of
Lon Chaney, "man of a thousand faces," starred in the earliest version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and then poignantly portrayed the title character of the Paris Opera House in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) in his signature role. The unveiling of the phantom's face, when Christine (Mary Philbin) rips off his mask - was (and still is) a startling sequence. Austrian-born director Erich von Stroheim's style was more harsh and European than the works of other imported directors. After the brooding Foolish Wives (1921), his ten-hour silent masterpiece Greed (1924) (an adaptation of Frank Norris' novel McTeague) was screened for newly-formed MGM executives including Irving Thalberg, and then severely cut down to its current length of 133 minutes.
technological cinematic achievement was attained by French filmmaker Abel
Gance in his film Napoleon (1927), a visually
revolutionary film with panoramic, "triptych" Polyvision
(three-screens side-by-side to create a wide-screen effect)
at its climax. And at the end of the decade, the influential and creative
film The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) from experimental cameraman/director
Dziga Vertov, employed some of the first uses of the split screen, montage
editing, and rapidly-filmed scenes in its view of
It was a great era for light-hearted comedy
- the popularity of Charlie Chaplin soared in movies such as his first silent
feature film The Kid (1921) (with child star Jackie Coogan), The Pilgrim (1923) - in which he mimes the
David and Goliath story, and in the classic The Gold Rush (1925), a story
with pathos and wild comedy. Chaplin was presented with a special Academy
Award "for versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing, and
producing" for The Circus (1928).
Chaplin's comedies were matched by the acrobatics and dare-devil antics of silent comic Harold Lloyd as an All-American boy in Safety Last (1923) and The Freshman (1925), or the inspired comedic work of passively-unsmiling Buster Keaton (The Great Stone Face) in Sherlock, Jr. (1924) (Keaton's first solo directorial work), The Navigator (1924), the Civil War epic with spectacular sight gags titled The General (1927) (Keaton co-directed with Clyde Bruckman), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and The Cameraman (1928). Baby-faced Harry Langdon's best feature film, The Strong Man (1926) was director Frank Capra's feature-film debut. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy popularized short slapstick films, becoming a comedy team for the first time in 1927 at Hal Roach Studios in director Clyde Bruckman's Putting the Pants on Philip (1927). The Marx Brothers debuted in their first film together, The Cocoanuts (1929).
Griffith, Vidor, and Gish:
The largest grossing silent film up to
its time was King Vidor's WWI tale - an epic, anti-war film and romance story
titled The Big Parade (1925).
Vidor's classic film of Everyman, The
Crowd (1928), a "slice-of-life" tale of a faceless, underpaid,
hard-working clerk who never seemed to get ahead in the big city of New York
during the Jazz Age, was under-appreciated at the time of its release. Lillian
Gish collaborated with director Victor Seastrom for two films: Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic The
Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), one of the last great
Interestingly, some of the biggest
successes of the 1920s, like Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
(1921) (that launched Valentino's career as a star), The Ten Commandments
(1923), the expensive spectacle of MGM's Ben-Hur (1926), and The
King of Kings (1927) all foreshadowed their remakes during the mid-fifties
and early sixties. The silent era Ben-Hur
was the greatest and most legendary spectacular of its kind.
Westerns and Prototypes of Other Genres: The western film genre was uniquely American and became popular in the early days of the cinema. The first major Western, a landmark film, was director James Cruze's epic pioneer saga filmed on-location, The Covered Wagon (1923), an authentic-looking 83 minute film advertised as "the biggest thing the screen has had since The Birth of a Nation." Legendary director John Ford directed his first major film, a seminal Western titled The Iron Horse (1924), the sweeping tale of the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. The last film old Western hero William S. Hart appeared in was King Baggot's Tumbleweeds (1925).
films were also released in the 1920s. The first science-fiction film
(with early examples of stop-motion special effects) about prehistoric dinosaurs
in a remote South American jungle The Lost World (1925), adapted from
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tale, premiered during the silent era. Willis O'Brien,
who would later be responsible for the success of King Kong (1933), came of
age as a stop-motion animator for this film. [In 1925, Imperial Airways presented
it as the first in-flight movie on a flight from
The Birth of the Talkies: Films were silent (although they were never really silent but accompanied by sound organs, gramophone discs, musicians, sound effects specialists, live actors who delivered dialogue, and even full-scale orchestras), until 1926-7 when America technologically revolutionized the entire industry - Warner Bros. launched sound and talking pictures with the development of a revolutionary synchronized sound system called Vitaphone (a short-lived system developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories that became obsolete by 1931). This sound-on-disk process allowed sound to be recorded on a phonograph record that was electronically linked and synchronized with the film projector.
The first feature-length film with synchronized
sound effects and musical soundtrack (canned music and sound effects), but
without dialogue, was Warner Bros.' romantic adventure Don Juan (1926).
It was premiered in A
Alan Crosland's film failed to create the sensation that Warners had hoped for.
[Fox Film Corporation developed its own
competing, advanced version of sound pictures with its Movietone
system - this adaptable system added a 'soundtrack' directly onto the strip
of film; the sound-on-film system would become the predominant sound technology.
It soon replaced the inflexible Vitaphone system.
Fox's Movietone system was premiered in early 1927
with the showing of the comedy film What Price Glory? (1926), and a showing of a newsreel of the Lindbergh flight
The second sound feature released the following year in October 1927, also directed by Alan Crosland for Warner Bros., revolutionized motion pictures forever. The sound era was officially inaugurated when audiences first heard ("Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothin' yet") and saw Russian-born American vaudeville star Al Jolson singing in the first feature-length talkie (and first musical), The Jazz Singer (1927) - a revolutionary film that was mostly silent - with only about 350 'spontaneously spoken' words but with six songs (in the film's partly-synchronized musical soundtrack). The film was a re-creation of the 1925-6 musical stage success that had starred George Jessel as the aspiring cantor's son who wanted to become a jazz singer. Producer Sam Warner died one day before the film's premiere.
The other major film studios (
End of the Silents - Upheavals in the Film Industry:
As anticipated, the arrival of sound created great upheaval in the history of the motion picture industry, (as exemplified in the film Singin' in the Rain (1954)). Camera movements were restricted and acting suffered as studios attempted to record live dialogue. Film studios were confronted with many problems related to the coming of sound - actors/actresses lacking good voices and stage experience, the decreased marketability of many Hollywood stars, the obsolescence of film studios and the necessity for expensive new equipment and sound-proofed stages, restricted markets for English-language talkies, installation of sound systems in movie theatres, and noisy movie cameras (that had to be housed in huge sound-insulated booths). Stationary microphones impeded the movement of actors. Films that began production as silents were quickly transformed into sound films.
Some of the earliest talkies were primitive, self-conscious, crudely-made productions with an immobile microphone - designed to capitalize on the novelty of sound. Lubitsch's first sound film The Love Parade (1929) (with Jeanette MacDonald's debut appearance), however, exhibited the director's creative adaptation to the requirements of sound film, and was one of the first backstage musicals with musical numbers that were integral to the plot. Smoothly directed, Lubitsch avoided making it stage-bound and over-acted like many of the early talkies.
Many stars of the silent era saw their
careers shattered (e.g., Pola Negri,
Ramon Novarro, Clara Bow, Vilma
Banky, Colleen Moore, Rod La Rocque,
and John Gilbert), while others like Joan Crawford survived the transition
- elocution lessons became a necessity for some. But all the studios were
forced to follow suit. By 1930, the silent movie had practically disappeared.
Many new film stars and directors, imported from Broadway, would become familiar
The First 'Talking' Musical, the First All-Dialogue Sound Film, and the First Animated Sound Cartoon:
The first original film musical and the first musical/sound film to win the "Best Picture" Academy Award was MGM's The Broadway Melody (1929) starring Charles King, Anita Page, and Bessie Love. it was also MGM's first full-length musical feature (in a long succession of distinguished musicals) and the first widely-distributed sound feature. MGM quickly followed up with a musical revue titled Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929), advertising it as having all of MGM's silent-film stars (Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, John Gilbert, Marion Davies, Bessie Love, Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, and more) now "talking and singing."
first all-talking (or all-dialogue) picture was a gangster film - Warners'
experimental entry with sound and dialogue was titled Lights of
Influential Organizations Formed:
In 1922, the
The Beginning of the Academy Awards:
The Motion Picture Academy (the Academy
of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - AMPAS) was founded in 1927 with
Douglas Fairbanks as president. The AMPAS organization established the Academy
Awards in the late 1920s and first distributed them in mid-May
of 1929 for films opening between mid-1927 and mid-1928.
In the first year of the Academy's Awards' presentations, separate awards (not known as Oscar quite yet) were given for Best Production (now termed Best Picture). There were two "Best Picture" winners: the financially successful anti-war film, William Wellman's Wings (1927) for Best Production and Sunrise (1927) for Best Unique and Artistic Picture (a category that was immediately dropped). Wings (1927) featured exciting aerial combat sequences and starred Clara Bow and a young actor named Gary Cooper. These films were the only silent films ever to win the Academy Award for 'Best Picture'. The Jazz Singer (1927), declared ineligible for the Best Picture award, was given a special award for revolutionizing the industry.