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American Cinema of the 1920s

Themes and Variations

Edited by Lucy Fischer

Publication Year: 2009

In ten original essays, American Cinema of the 1920s examines the film industry's continued growth and prosperity while focusing on important themes of the era that witnessed the birth of the star system that supported the meteoric rise and celebrity status of actors including Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Rudolph Valentino while black performers (relegated to "race films") appeared infrequently in mainstream movies.

Published by: Rutgers University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix

I would like to thank the editors of the Screen Decades series, Lester Friedman and Murray Pomerance, for inviting me to edit this volume and for providing me assistance in its formulation. I would also like to thank all the contributors to the volume for their hard work and patience in seeing the book through to publication. Additionally, I would also like to express my...

Timeline: The 1920s

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pp. xi-xviii

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Introduction: Movies and the 1920s

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pp. 1-22

Writing in November 1931, F. Scott Fitzgerald stated: “It is too soon to write about the Jazz Age with perspective” (13). It may have been then, but it is not now. Furthermore, there are many aspects of the decade that make it an especially fascinating one to chronicle—both in terms of American cultural and film history. As for the first realm, it was an age of great...

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1920: Movies, Margarine, and Main Street

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pp. 23-45

Not surprisingly, it was cold at the beginning of January: that first Friday morning of the New Year would turn out to be particularly frigid across much of the Northeast and Midwest (“1 January”). But regardless of the bitter weather, enumerators in the towns of Monessen, Pennsylvania; Van Wert and Coshocton, Ohio; Bessemer, Michigan; and Waukesha, Wisconsin, had a job to do...

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1921: Movies and Personality

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pp. 46-69

The films made this year and the performers who starred in them participated in a relatively new popular interest in the secret strangeness of the familiar personality. The stories the movies now told bore the traces of a significant cultural transition: from a Progressive Era concern with finding happiness through solving life’s problems...

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1922: Movies and the Perilous Future

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pp. 70-94

In a surprising number of spheres, this year may be regarded as a pivot point between the traditional and the modern. Political forces that would shape the rest of the twentieth century were coming to the fore. The United States was emerging as the preeminent first-world military power as the old model of political control gave way to economic control...

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1923: Movies and the Changing Body of Cinema

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pp. 95-119

Embodiment—national, global, cultural, and personal— shifts and transforms on many levels at once this year. In Washington, one of the most corrupt presidential administrations in U.S. history is presided over by Warren G. Harding, who, after his death on 2 August, leaves a legacy of scandal involving disastrous political judgment...

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1924: Movies and Play

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pp. 120-142

When static filled the air, it was not for want of trying to eliminate it. On 23 August, the newly formed Radio Broadcasting Association of America sought to abolish interstellar boundaries by relaying a message to Mars (that planet spiraled to within 55.7 million...

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1925: Movies and a Year of Change

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pp. 143-164

Midway through the decade, America was coming to terms with its emerging identity as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan society. The clash between traditional values and a developing modernist sensibility was expressed in the major political event of the year, the Scopes trial, and in the texts produced by America’s cultural scene. This year...

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1926: Movies and Divine Stars, Defining Gender

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pp. 165-187

Early in the year, technological advances stole the spotlight: U.S. inventors worked to address the development of television, spurred by competition with British inventor John Logie Baird. At the Royal Institution in London, Baird demonstrated a moving-object image with thirty lines of resolution on his mechanical television system. In the United States,...

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1927: Movies and the New Woman as Consumer

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pp. 188-210

Sensational events and personalities that made headlines this year were signs of an American culture deeply divided about the nature of consumer capitalism and modernization. Demographic change had resulted in more urban than rural dwellers, but ethnic and racialized people in cities represented the unassimilatable Other and were scapegoated. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, for example, were electrocuted...

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1928: Movies, Social Conformity, and Imminent Traumas

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pp. 211-233

For the average American living and working in a big city, it must have felt, more or less, like the previous year. As we learn from the beginning of King Vidor’s The Crowd, every achievement felt possible and ready to be plucked from the tree of prosperity for generations to come. The Empire State Building was under construction, Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin, and the Harlem Renaissance of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes was in full bloom. “Grow up and do something...

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1929: Movies, Crashes, and Finales

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pp. 234-256

During the 1920s there had been an extended boom in stock prices, with values quadrupling over a nine-year period. Investors, convinced that this trend was endless, continued to borrow funds to plow back into the market. When Herbert Hoover was inaugurated on 4 March, displacing Calvin Coolidge, he had predicted: “We shall soon...

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Select Academy Awards, 1927-1929

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pp. 257-258

The first Academy Awards were given on 16 May 1929, at 8:00 P.M. in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. The hosts were Douglas Fairbanks and William C. de Mille. The awards were for films of 1927 and part of 1928. Categories were different...

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Sources for Films

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pp. 259-261

Many films from this decade are difficult to find. Some titles are only available in film archives. Some may be acquired for personal use, but only from small companies that distribute “collector’s copies” on VHS or DVD-R. Typically mastered from video copies of battered and “dupey” 8 mm or 16 mm prints, these copies are often well below normal commercial standards....

Works Cited and Consulted

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pp. 263-274


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pp. 275-276


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pp. 277-291

E-ISBN-13: 9780813547152
E-ISBN-10: 0813547156
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813544847
Print-ISBN-10: 081354484X

Page Count: 312
Illustrations: 33 photographs
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Motion pictures -- United States -- Plots, themes, etc.
  • Motion pictures -- United States -- History.
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