Movies came into existence before World War I. They were interrupted in the 1940s by World War II, then in the 1950s they were shoved into the background by television. Movies continue to be produced and continue to be attended by the viewing public that continues to be entertained by blockbuster productions with never before seen action scenes.
Prior to the 1920s movies tended to be unrealistic and zany mass entertainment, such as those produced by Mack Sennet where the Keystone Kops chased everyone and caught nobody, cars were cut in half by trains and miraculously rejoined, and men robbed banks with vacuum cleaners.
By WWI, director D.W. Griffith was turning movies into an art form. His two silent classics, "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance" were the first feature-length movies made in this country.
"Both movies were powerful indictments of the ethics of the existing social order," according to Bill Lawrence in his book, "A Social History of America."
"Birth of a Nation," which was about the Civil War and Reconstruction, presented the Ku Klux Klan as chivalric heroes and was thus believed to be a reason for the Klan's rebirth in 1915. Griffith was the first producer to use film techniques such as: close-up, fade-in, fade-out, low-angle, and moving shots, and the use of lighting.
Griffith's biggest female star was Mary Pickford - while Charlie Chaplin was the biggest male star during this period. After Chaplin became a star he and Pickford vied with each other in trying to be the movies' highest-paid performer. Chaplin won when he signed the industry's first million-dollar contract, after which, no producer could afford him so Chaplin organized his own company.
Chaplin was a socialist who used his "little tramp" character to highlight the common man in society. "The Gold Rush" was an essay on the transient nature of wealth; "City Lights" cautioned the nation to beware of Coolidge prosperity; "Modern Times" indicted the industrial system. To quote Lawrence, "Once a dinner guest wandered into the kitchen to find Chaplin on a chair haranguing brilliantly on the injustices of a capitalistic society before a wildly applauding audience of guests and servants." Even after sound came in to being, Chaplin continued to make silent films, but his popularity declined because of his political views and his non-payment of taxes - since he was a British citizen he refused to take out American papers. Eventually he left the country.
Pickford brought into use the terms "Pollyanna" and "Poor Little Rich Girl," in the movies of these names. Theda Bara, another leading star, gave us "vamp" and "Kiss me, you fool." In several movies Bara showed the public a female without conscience who tried to wreck the lives of men by the calculated use of her sensual charms. With that example women across the country adopted her plunging necklines and tried to emulate her pale countenance and languid movements.
"Theda Bara was a creation of her studio's publicity department. According to press releases, she was born on the sands of the Sahara, the child of a French painter and his Arabian mistress. Theda was an anagram of 'death' and Bara an anagram of 'Arab.' Her real name was Theodosia Goodman, and she was born in Cincinnati to a tailor and his wife."
Clara Bow was personalized as a sex role model, and after making the movie "It," she became the "It Girl." "It" was a euphemism for sex in the 1920s. In real life she wheeled around in an expensive red roadster, which matched her flaming hair, with two red Irish setters on the running boards. She is said to have spent money as fast as she made it, sometimes throwing parties for entire football squads.
Rudolph Valentino emigrated from Italy and worked as a gardener, then a cabaret dancer and gigolo, and finally skyrocketed to movie fame. He was well loved as a silent movie star in such movies as "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," "The Sheik," and "The Son of the Sheik." While men pined after Mary Pickford, Clara, Bow, and Pola Negri, women moviegoers pined after "Rudy." Valentino's career lasted only five years - he died of peritonitis in a New York hospital. His lying-in-state at a Broadway funeral parlor caused riots in the rain as crowds tried to catch a glimpse of him.
All except one major motion picture studio was in existence before the silent days ended: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia, Paramount, RKO, Universal, and Warner Brothers. Twentieth Century Fox was organized in 1935.
(Continued next week)