I’m having some serious trouble reviewing this series as it moves along. It’s not because I don’t enjoy it, quite the opposite as I watch every episode twice. It’s because there’s just way too much to cover in one episode. I filled three-quarters of a page this time around with names, companies and stories to try to cram into a few paragraphs. I’m constantly amazed at how much info is explored in each one hour episode and I could never do the series justice in my short little reviews but I’m trying. Episode 3 explored the 1920′s and the dramatic changes in the movie industry along with a few shocking scandals, something that was also new to the industry.
Several scandals were covered in the beginning of this episode and it seems as if the idea of ‘celebrity’ was really beginning. Nobody had really cared about the actors that were in films in the early days of cinema but the times were changing. It’s hard to imagine a time when we weren’t overwhelmed by completely useless information about every star imaginable. What they eat, who they date, where they shop. Somewhere there are a lot of people making money off the private business of celebrities but as early as the 20′s people were interested in the big stars. As the same actors would appear in film after film it was only a matter of time before people wanted to know more about them. With that comes scandal though and one of the worst was Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle.
As prohibition was starting up, Fatty Arbuckle held a lavish party for Labour Day in 1921. During this party a bit part actress named Virginia Rappe became sick and died a few days later. Fatty Arbuckle was accused of rape and charged with manslaughter in Rappe’s death. After three separate trials he was finally acquitted but the damage had been done and his career would never be the same. Ten years earlier and nobody may have even known who Arbuckle was, never mind the fact that they probably wouldn’t have heard the accusations against him. The movies were becoming an important part of society as people looked towards films and stars as an escape and not just something that was a passing fad.
Riding the wave of popularity were the movie studios. Warner Bros, Famous Players (eventually becoming Paramount), RKO, MGM and Fox (eventually becoming 20th Century Fox) were all becoming huge players raking in the millions. I’m still shocked at the amount of money some of the stars were paid at the time. We’re talking the 20′s and some actors were making over $1,000 a week. That was more than a schoolteachers yearly salary. With a film costing less than a quarter to watch I can only imagine how many people would sit in the darkened theater for the studios to make that kind of profit.
Not only were the studios becoming lavish places with seemingly unending amounts of money, the theaters themselves were becoming places that seemed like the playgrounds of the rich. Nicknamed ‘picture palaces’ it’s not hard to see how they got the name. While we’re treated to cookie cutter theaters, right down to the annoying and dizzying carpet that each one employs, theater goers in the 20′s were treated like kings and queens. Gorgeously designed theaters were built all over the country with the idea that they “weren’t selling tickets to movies, they were selling tickets to theaters.” (now if only I could remember who said that!)
The 20′s seemed to introduce glamour to the film industry and two stars embodied that glamour more than any others. Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo. Valentino starred in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921 and it was obvious that he would continue on to stardom. It was his role in The Shiek (1921) that would really form the image that has continued all these years. His death in 1926 at the age of 31 proved to be quite the spectacle as fans turned out in huge numbers to pay their last respects.
Greta Garbo’s first American film was The Torrent (1926) but it wasn’t until her next few films that she really came into her own. An astoundingly beautiful woman, Garbo appeared in numerous films until her last in 1941. She was extremely reclusive and the public didn’t really learn very much about her, something I wish a few celebrities would attempt to do now! The entire idea of celebrity and their lavish lifestyles was growing and the public’s fascination with them was only just beginning. Look where it’s all ended up!
In direct contrast to the beauty that Valentino and Garbo portrayed, Lon Chaney’s film The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released in 1923. Chaney had been in many, many films previous to The Hunchback but this is probably one of his most memorable. It was at least one of the earliest of his films to showcase his amazing ability with make-up, earning him the nickname The Man of a Thousand Faces. It also showed his intense urge to give his best performance as he bounds about the screen despite being hunched over and covered in make-up.
With the 1920′s bringing prosperity to the movie studios, they were also becoming well aware of the selling power of their stars. Charlie Chaplin’s image as the Little Tramp had been plastered on everything from postcards to books and he is credited as being one of the first stars to really merchandise his image. The 20′s also saw Wall Street begin to get involved in the movie business. It’s a natural fit. If you’re trying to make some money then there’s almost no better place to do it then in the movie industry at that time. The risks were still great but that’s part of the lure of making money isn’t it? The enormous risk involved.
With prohibition in full swing, it was the movies that allowed for the kind of escape people couldn’t find in real life anymore. Numerous films were chock full of ‘sinful’ entertainment like gambling, drinking and sexuality. Often the characters that took part in such outrageous actions wound up being punished for their ways and this was how the studios got around the ever-growing concern about what films portrayed. It was the perfect blend to please both the audience that demanded more and the censors who demanded less.
The threat of censorship is what led to the creation of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in 1927. Originally intended to handle labor disputes in hopes of keeping the unions out of the process and to form a group that could improve the image of the industry, it wasn’t until 1929 that the first Academy Awards were handed out. They weren’t exactly the spectacle that we’re treated to now and some even considered them a joke. There also wasn’t any surprises as winners had been announced three months earlier.
This is only a very tiny bit of the information that is covered in the third episode and I actually have to watch the episodes twice just to soak it all in. You can easily see how Hollywood was turning to large cash flows even in its early days. While the movies seemed to entice those with a passion for this new art, in the 20′s it was becoming more of an interest in making big money instead. Experimental filmmakers were already being ostracized as their projects were deemed too expensive or too confusing to be accepted. Censorship was beginning to play a huge role in the industry as well and the episode ended just as this was becoming a major factor. In true Hollywood fashion, the 20′s also marked the moment that the Hollywood sign was erected in the hills, although it originally read Hollywoodland. It didn’t exactly represent the same thing that it does now but its creation as the film industry really began to take off seems fitting.
I’ll be patiently waiting for the next episode and Moguls and Movie Stars airs every Monday at 8 pm and repeats every Wednesday at 10 pm on Turner Classic Movies. Every week films that are showcased in the episodes are shown before and after the episode and tomorrow has a batch of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films in the mix beginning at 8 pm. I’m looking forward to checking those out but everyone will just have to keep themselves busy by reading all my previous reviews of the series. See how I worked that in there! HAHA!
Under the marquee – Will