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Movies: The Changing Society in the 1920’s

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The 1920s was an important time period in American history due to the significant transformation of the film industry that further influenced the economy and the society. Both silent and sound movies were largely produced during the time that not only made the entertainment more popular but also created a new trend in the society. With such big influences, the economy in the United States also relied on film industry during the era. With both positive and negative impacts brought from movies, the changing female roles in society and the changing beliefs of teenagers were the significant issues in the society during the time. Over the course of the 1920s, the film industry not only created a new form of entertainment, but it also contributed to the shaping of American social norms.

A new form of entertainment was created during the 1920s that brought changes to the people’s daily lives and influenced the economy. From the era of silent movies to sound films, not only did the way of producing films change, but also the entertaining experiences for the audience changed. In the 1920s, silent films were largely dominant. During that era, movies were often played accompanied by live piano or organ music to provide great entertainment to the audience.i Mothers could bring their babies to the local theaters, and the audience would all cheer, jeer, shout, whistle and stamp their feet together during the shows.

ii With such opportunities, people were able to share their emotions right away, which brought the community closer. This unique experience could only be seen during the silent films era, and as “talkies” were brought into the industry in the late 1920s, such involvement had forever became history. The introduction of adjust sound in movies started in the early 1920s. Beginning in 1923, synchronized sound tracks would be photographically recorded and printed on to the side of the films. iii The introduction of the new technology was seen as the start of “talkies” era. However, not until the very late 1920s, did talking pictures finally replace the silent era.iv Yet with this replacement, many working class movie houses were shut down for the fact that they couldn’t afford the high cost of the equipment to play the sound of the films.

v The changing film industry began creating a new way of entertainment and also began having a significant influence on the entertainment industry. Due to the success of the sound movies, the entertainment experiences for the people had changed largely. The 1920s was also the period when animations, such as Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse, vi began gaining popularity among all people. The live shows that used to be playing during the movies had slowly disappeared and were replaced by animated shorts.vii This transformation in film industry provided many opportunities in the performing arts for the whole society to present their great creativity and to develop more in the future.

Not only did sound movies create chances for animations, but also lead to new genres such as the musical, the gangster films, and comedies that relied much on music.viii With these changes, audiences began experiencing new innovations in film production and effects in the theaters. To be able to show the changes of the movie productions, theaters also made many different adjustments into the theaters just to give the audience even better experiences. During the 1920s, theaters began to offer double features. ix As more and more people began going to theaters for movies, theaters also began having red plush sets, luxurious carpets, rich velour curtains, finely appointed toilet rooms and a fifteen thousand organ.x With the improvements of the theaters, people began having even better experiences when watching movies that also encouraged them to watch movies more often.

One of the biggest groups who watched movies was the urban workers. Working class movie houses and independent neighborhood theaters were where most urban workers would go to instead of the theaters in the cities to watch movies. Working class movie houses eventually became the high-spirited centers of neighborhood sociability.xi Not only did theaters provide a place for people to watch movies, but also helped create the success of the new popular entertainment. The transformation from silent movies to sound movies provided different opportunities for the people in the 1920s, and it further increased the ability to create the new culture of film industry.

With the transformation of the film industry, the new entertainment not only influenced both the daily lives of the people and the economy but also led to the success of Hollywood. Watching movies became a hit in the 1920s as most Americans went to see the movies at least once a week.xii Going to the movies was considered a new trend in this era, and it brought people from different ethnicities together. xiii During the time, urban workers went to movie houses more instead of theaters due to its lower cost,xiv Movies became a very popular pastime in the United States. Movie attendance soared from fifty million people in 1925 to one hundred and ten million people by the end of the late 1920s. With this increasing interest in films, it not only created a new entertainment genre but also positively impacted the economy.

The 1920s represents the era of the greatest film productions output in the U.S movie market. About eight hundred films were produced annually in the 1920sxv, and yet it is remarkable to see five hundred films produced a year nowadays. xvi Due to this demand for movies, the whole film industry, including theaters and studios, were not directly affected by the Great Depression in the late 1929. xvii A new market was created during this era in the United States that was not only the result of the success of film industry, but it also helped the industry advance further. However, without the help from the most valuable place in film industry, the United Stated would never be able to reach such success. Hollywood, the cinema of the United States, became the center of film industry in 1927 due to its good weather and the scenic places. xviii

Standing in such important position in film industry, eighty-five percent of U.S film productions were filmed in or around the area by 1927.xix By the end of the 1920s twenty Hollywood studios were made and the amount of films that were produced was greater than ever. xx By the end of the decade, Hollywood was ruled and monopolized by The Big Five, including Warner Bros. Pictures, Famous PlayersLasky Corporation, RKO Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn Pictures, and Fox Film Corporation/Foundation, for the next fifty years as they produced more than ninety percent of the fiction films in the United States.xxi The success of Hollywood brought more chances and opportunities for further development in film industry that not only helped the film productions but also the economy with the great market in the 1920s.

During the decade, the United States had experienced a period of great change, which resulted in further influences upon the women’s role in society. The beginning of motion pictures encouraged women to seek their independence in society as it represented the birth of the new modern women. Since women made up the majority of the audience for movies, they were highly influenced by the film industry, which also encouraged them in fighting for their independence. Prior to 1920s women were represented in the media as being the “typical” women, in which they were seen as undertaking the usual expressive role in the family.

xxii Women’s suffrage, music, film industry, or prohibitions were all having big changes during the era, especially modern children and womenxxiii, which emerged and impacted future generations. Women advanced their role in society through the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the rights to vote. xxiv Furthermore, movies also stood for an important role in the movements. As a Photoplay article reported in 1924, among all audience, 75% were women and in 1927 83% of the audience was women.xxv Due to the high number of female audience, movies were able to influence women that helped much for the success of the women’s movement. Movies began depicting the new style and freedom of women in the 1920s.

How a “new modern” women was like was depicted in the movies such that they began drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes in public, dancing more provocatively, and going into the workforce.xxvi Females began to look at how women were portrayed in movies as role models.xxvii Movies in the era tried to portray the real society, and yet it also encouraged people to change that further formed this new “society.” Through films that deal with women seeking their independence, female audience was able to experience and undertake the role of an independent and successful woman.xxviii These roles encouraged women to become more independent and female audience also began to find new confidence.

This allowed them to seek careers of their own and gain financial independence. xxix These advancements helped the success of the women’s movement during the time which also enabled women to gain more rights. Movies had not only depicted the social lives of women during the time but also influenced and introduced women in new fashions.

As women began imitating the actresses from the movies, the flapper portrayed in the film expanded the influences of the society. Women in movies were viewed by young girls as role models and female adults also began to use cosmetics to recreate the appearance of the actresses of the film.xxx Furthermore, more women looked up to the characters portrayed in the movies as more and more of them were seen as progressive individuals with far more independence during the era. xxxi The most important change in the society for women was the formation of “flappers” during the time.

The visual icon for the 1920s modern women was the “flapper” which indicated thin, flat-chest, and boyish-looking new women.xxxii Women began dressing in shorter dresses and skirts with short bobbed hair and makeup. xxxiii Clara Bow, the most famous actress in the late 1920s, for example, had the most influence on society as she played the part of a flapper in many films that influenced many young girls to behave in the same way. xxxiv Such fashions were seen much during the 1920s and were also brought into the movie. This also increased the influences on the society especially on females. Although film industry had brought many positive impacts to the society that helped formed a different culture, it also brought negative impacts that were not accepted.

While there were positive impacts towards the youth, many feared that the films would instill negative values on the next generation. The changing culture and American views on family were brought by the impacts of film industry. Youth also learned to be more responsible as they saw the horrible experiences the characters had as they made wrong decisions. Movies in some way even helped shrink the generation gap between parents and children as they began to think about what was the best way to associate with the family members. xxxv People began dreaming about being and living in a life as the characters in the movies.

Youth started to act like the actors and actresses of a film; however, such actions also referred to a drunken man or a hero cowboy who shot and killed a villain.xxxvi Like the adults, teenagers, too, began imitating characters in movies in the 1920s that helped formed a new culture in the United States. Movies even gave the youth a chance to understand the idea of love. They found out a certain way of being attractive from movies and learned about relationships at younger ages. xxxvii However, movies often the youth desired an unrealistic life style. Upon comparing themselves to the movie characters, youth began looking down upon themselves and felt dissatisfied with their lives for not having special type of dresses, not going to the good restaurants, and also not receiving much freedom from their parents.

With such dissatisfactions of their lives, youth started to blame their parents and complained for not having much freedom as they “should” have according to the movies in the 1920s. xxxviii Although movies gave teenagers more chances to understand their rights and freedom, it also caused conflicts in the society. Furthermore, the people often emulated the racist thoughts illustrated in the movies. Subjects discussed in movies negatively impacted the beliefs of the people and race. Subjects like sex and killings became an everyday subjects with films in the 20s. As a German neurologist analyzed from 250 films there were 97 of them that contained murders, 51 adulteries, 19 seductions, 22 abductions and suicides.xxxix Such subjects not only encouraged people taking wrong actions and decisions, but also created prejudice in the society.

People began to have stereotyped views toward others no matter the race or the appearance. Most of the movies in the 1920s portrayed colored people as bad traits of unintelligent instead of a lovable or an educated character.xl Some college students even believed that Chinese men all had some sort of evil affair and that they all used opium. Thus, it caused them to avoid any Chinese men. xli Also, as most movies portrayed villains with a mustache, people began to believe that in real life whoever had a mustache were dangerous people.xlii With such impacts toward the society, more and more worries were coming out, especially toward the young generation.

Some people were afraid that the next generation of children would be corrupted by the illegality of gangster flicks and movie violence.xliii M. Rollet, the president of the Children’s Court at Paris once said, “The children judges of the country are unanimously of the opinion that the harmful influence of the cinema is one of the principle causes of crime among children.”xliv One of the biggest way movies had changed the society was by people imitating the characters, and yet because of this, youth had started to take wrong actions that further harmed the society.

Film industry in the 1920s was a time of evolution that not only changed the format of the movies, but also the society was influenced. Some people liked the changes while others did not accept these changes. The positive influences of movies outweighed the negative impacts in society. The 1920s was the beginning of the formation of our modern society. The film industry helped the society to advance a more modern prospective toward social thinking.

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