Hollywood Film Studios in the 20s

The firms that were to rule Hollywood filmmaking for the next half-century were the giants. Warner Bros. PictuLouis B. Mayerres incorporated in 1923. In 1924, MGM (first named Metro-Goldwyn Pictures - formed from the merger of Metro Pictures, Samuel Goldwyn Pictures, and the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Company), Columbia Pictures, and MCA (the Music Corporation of America founded by Jules Stein) were all created or founded. Later, RKO Pictures went into business in 1928. In 1926, Famous Players-Lasky Corporation spent $1 million on United Studios' property (on Marathon Street), where Paramount Pictures henceforth has been located since 1935.

After World War I and into the early 1920s, America was the leading producer of films in the world - using Thomas Ince's "factory system" of production, although the system did limit the creativity of many directors. Production was in the hands of the major studios (that really flourished after 1927), and the star system was burgeoning. MGM was to become the dominant studio of Hollywood's Golden Age during the 30s, under Louis B. Mayer's direction.

 Chinese Theater in HollywoodMovie Palaces:

Impresario Sid Grauman built a number of movie palaces in Los Angeles in this time period: the Million Dollar Theater in 1918, the Egyptian in 1922, and then the now-famous Chinese Theater in Hollywood in 1927. He established the tradition of having Hollywood stars place their prints in cement in front of the theater, creating an instant tourist attraction. The 2,258 seat theatre on Hollywood Boulevard opened the same year with the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings (1927). Films were bigger, costlier, more polished, and the major film emphasis was on swashbucklers, historical extravaganzas, and melodramas.

Pickford and Fairbanks:

America flocked to the movies to see the Queen of Hollywood, their sweetheart and the most popular star of the Pickford and Fairbanksgeneration - "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.

Robin HoodDouglas 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 - a Hollywood film premiere double-featured two films together: Fairbanks' The Black Pirate (1926) with early two-color Technicolor (and the superstar's most famous stunt of riding down a ship's sail on a knife) and Mary Pickford's melodramatic film Sparrows (1926). Fairbanks scored again at the close of the decade with The Iron Mask (1929).

Other 1920s Box-Office Stars:

The top box-office stars in the 1920s included Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, Tom Mix, Norma Talmadge, RudolpClara Bowh 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 Brooklyn girl starred in It (1927), becoming the "It" (sex appeal) girl and boosting her to Paramount Studios' super-stardom in the late 1920s. Young screen actress, platinum blonde starlet Jean Harlow was 'discovered' and soon contracted with aviation millionaire/movie mogul Howard Hughes to replace the female lead in his soon-to-be-released, re-made sound version of Hell's Angels (1930), an exciting WWI film about British flying aces.  

AnotheJanet Gaynorr famous screen couple, dubbed "America's lovebirds," were romantic film stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, eventually paired together in twelve films. The first was Seventh Heaven (1927), a classic romantic melodrama. For their work in Seventh Heaven, Janet Gaynor received the first "Best Actress" Academy Award and director Frank Borzage received the first "Best Director" Academy Award. Janet Gaynor was also honored in the same year with an Academy Award for her exquisite acting in F. W. Murnau's first American film - the beautiful Fox-produced Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), often considered the finest silent film ever made by a Hollywood studio. Murnau's last film was the semi-travelogue documentary Tabu (1931).

The 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 ApocalyRudolph Valentinopse (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 New York, mostly female mourners, verged on mass hysteria as they tried to view his body.) [One of Valentino's legacies was that a brand of popular condoms was named after his role in one of his most famous films.] Native born director Clarence Brown, who had directed Valentino in The Eagle (1925) also directed imported actress Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1927), Woman of Affairs (1928), and turn-of-the-decade Anna Christie (1930).

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 The Marriage Circle (1924) about marital infidelity in Vienna, was later remade as the musical One Hour With You (1932). With his classic, sophisticated "touch," Lubitsch boldly confronted the pre-Hays code of censorship with So This Is Paris (1926).

Two German expressionistic films with dark shadows, visual story-telling, and angled shots in the earlyNosferatu 1920s were to have a strong influence on the coming development of US films: the surrealistic fantThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligariasy/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). Later in Germany, Fritz Lang's last major silent film was H. G. Wells' fantasy Metropolis (1926) - the film enriched cinema in years to come with its innovative techniques and futuristic sets. Murnau's silent film classic The Last Laugh (1924) told its entire story through camera movements (without a single title card). Both Metropolis and The Last Laugh were filmed by the pioneering German cameraman Karl Freund. The dark films of Josef von Sternberg in the late 1920s ushered in the gangster film: Underworld (1927), The Drag Net

(192The Phantom of the Opera9), and The Docks of New York (1929).

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. The Battleship Potemkin

 Legendary Russian auteur director Sergei Eisenstein's classic landmark and visionary film, Battleship Potemkin (1925) was released in the US in 1926, advancing the art of cinematic storytelling. Its most celebrated film scene, with superb editing combining wide, newsreel-like sequences inter-cut with close-ups of harrowing details, was the Odessa steps episode in 1905 in which civilians and rioters are ruthlessly massacred. The Czarist soldiers fire on the crowds thronging on the Odessa steps with the indelible image of a baby carriage careening down the steps.  Charlie Chaplin

AnoNapoleonther 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 Moscow.

Comedy Flourished:

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-AmericThe Generalan 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:

To advertiseHollywoodland how Hollywood was becoming the film capital of the world, the Hollywood sign (originally HOLLYWOODLAND) was built above town in 1923 for $21,000. D.W. Griffith continued to be successful (his earlier Birth of a Nation (1915) remained the most popular film until another war saga Gone with the Wind (1939) was filmed at the end of the 30s). One of Griffith's last commercial blockbusters, his classic melodrama of a morally-ostracized young woman, Way Down East (1920), was famous for its daring sequence of Lillian Gish in a blizzard and on a floating ice, rescued at the last minute by Richard Barthelmess. Griffith's next film, Orphans of the Storm (1922), starred sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish in a semi-factual drama of the French Revolution.

The largest grossing silent film up to its time was King Vidor's WWI tale - an epic, anti-war film and romance storThe Big Paradey 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 silent films.  

Expensive EpicThe Ten Commandmentss:

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. Hollywood experimented with an early form of Technicolor for some color sequences in master showman Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923) and in Fred Niblo's colossal Ben-Hur (1926). Cecil B. DeMille's name was forever associated with biblical spectacles (with rich doses of orgies and bathing scenes) that he first filmed in the 1920s.

Westerns and Prototypes of Other Genres: The Covered WagonThe 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).

Other The Lost Worldprototypical 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 London to Europe.] The prototype standard for later spooky, haunted "old dark house" mysteries was The Cat and the Canary (1927), a film re-made numerous times in future years.

The Birth of the Talkies: Films were silent (although they were never really silent but accompanied by sound organs, gramophone dDon Juaniscs, 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 New York in August 1926, and starred John Barrymore (nicknamed "The Great Profile") as the hand-kissing womanizer (the number of kisses in the film set a record). Director 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 across the Atlantic.

TheJazz Singer 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 (Paramount, MGM, First National, and Universal, and others) realized the ramifications of the sound revolution that was dawning. They signed an agreement together to analyze the competing sound systems within the next year and jointly choose a single system. And most of the studios started to convert from silent to sound film production. The famous MGM lion roar in the studio's opening logo was first recorded and viewed in a film in 1928.

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.

The Love ParadeSome 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 Hollywood names in the 1930s. And by the mid 1930s, film industry studios had become sound-film factories.

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 MelodyThe BBroadway Melodyroadway 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."

The first Hollywood film with an all-black cast was King Vidor's first talkie - Hallelujah (1929) but it was initially shot as a silent. It was the first film with a dubbed, asynchronous soundtrack added later in the studio - a technological, post-production advancement. In 1928, the first hit record from a film was from Al Jolson's Sonny Boy.

Steamboat Willie Mickey MouseThe first all-talking (or all-dialogue) picture was a gangster film - Warners' experimental entry with sound and dialogue was titled Lights of New York (1928). Nonetheless, it had 24 transitional titles. The first all-talkie in Great Britain, Blackmail (1929), was made by British director Alfred Hitchcock. The film was originally released as a silent film, but the studio pressured Hitchcock into adding dialogue sequences (with innovative post-synchronization techniques) for a talkie version. The first speaking cartoon with synchronized sound was Walt Disney's (and lead animator Ub Iwerks') Steamboat Willie (1928), debuting the cute character of Mickey Mouse. In 1929, Disney started his "Silly Symphony" animated cartoon series, beginning with the memorable "The Skeleton Dance."

Influential Organizations Formed:

In 1922, the Hollywood studios formed what would become the MPPDA - Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America - to lobby politicians, self-regulate the industry, counter negative publicity from a rash of scandals and other mysterious events, to shape the industry's public image, and to settle issues or common problems. (In 1927, conservative Will H. Hays, the Postmaster General of the US, became the head of the MPPDA and later set up the Hays Production Code in 1930 to monitor acceptable behavior in film.)

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.  

WingsIn 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.