The History of Silent Films

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After World War I, movies began to replace Vaudeville as America’s favorite form of entertainment.

By the mid-1920s almost every town in the country had at least one movie theater. Going to the movies was a lengthy affair in those days. You could easily spend up to four hours viewing a few newsreels, some comedy shorts, and then the feature film. After all that, sometimes a variety of live Vaudeville acts followed!

Movies Without Sound

Early films were silent, with actors and actresses using pantomime acting to convey emotion. Limited dialog was printed out for the audience to read. Live orchestras or pianists often provided a musical score. Famous silent movie era stars included Lillian Gish, Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolph Valentino. Theaters usually changed their showings two or three times a week.

By the middle of the decade, more films showed characters drinking in violation of Prohibition. Usually it was the hero, not the villain, consuming alcohol, creating the impression that breaking the liquor law was not only OK, it was glamorous.

The audience usually talked to each other during a silent film, a practice that was discouraged once “talkies” started being produced. Then the audience had to be quiet so everyone in the theater could hear the characters speaking.

Selling Movie Tickets

Industry statistics showed that nearly everyone in the country was going to the movies in the 1920s. By 1928, there were 28,000 movie theaters in the country, with ticket prices ranging from 10 to 50 cents.

While the population grew from 106 million to 127 million in the 1920s, average movie sales were 100 million tickets a week! Most likely, people were going to more than one movie in a seven day period to account for the high number of tickets sold. In 2006, with the country’s population topping 300 million, only 27 million movie tickets were sold in a week.

Not only were more tickets being sold, Hollywood was releasing a larger number of movies per year. By the end of the decade, there were between 800 and 1000 movies made in a year, compared to 600 in 2006.

The Studio System

As the film industry began to expand, a handful of movie houses controlled every aspect of production, distribution, and exhibition of their own films. The “Big Five” were Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM), Paramount Pictures, Fox Film Corporation, Warner Brothers, and RKO Pictures. Each company owned and operated networks of theaters that only showed their movies. The “block booking system” required independent theater owners to show all of a studio’s films if they wanted to show any of them.

Self-Regulating Movie Content

A series of scandals involving stars and executives made the industry self-regulate to improve its image. The newly-created Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America released a list of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” as a guide to producers about what was acceptable. Forbidden subjects on the “Don’ts” list included profanity, nudity, drug trafficking, sex perversion, white slavery, miscegenation, venereal disease, scenes of childbirth, portrayals of children’s sex organs, ridicule of the clergy, and willful offense to any nation, race or creed.

Producers were cautioned to use “prudence, discretion and good taste” if dealing with any of the 25 “Be Carefuls,” including: scenes containing the American flag, use of firearms, arson, theft, robbery, safecracking, dynamiting, murder, smuggling, hangings or other methods of execution, sedition, cruelty to children and animals, rape or attempted rape, surgical operations, drug use, prostitution, the seduction of girls, and “excessive or lustful kissing.”

Popular 1920s Movies

  • 7th Heaven
  • The Covered Wagon
  • The Hunchback Of Notre Dame
  • The Gold Rush
  • The Jazz Singer (the first “talkie”)
  • Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde
  • Pollyanna
  • Why Change Your Wife?
  • The Kid
  • The Sheik
  • Orphans Of The Storm
  • Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
  • The Three Musketeers
  • The Balloonatic
  • It’s A Gift
  • The White Sister
  • The Ten Commandments
  • Peter Pan
  • Beau Brummel
  • The Battleship Potemkin
  • Phantom Of The Opera
  • Ben-Hur
  • Don Juan
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • After Midnight
  • The Singing Fool
  • Our Dancing Daughters
  • My Man
  • Lights of New York
  • The Virginian
  • The Cocoanuts

Sources:

  1. Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940 by David E. Kyvig
  2. The 1920s by Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber