Morals at the American Movies

Morals at the American Movies

So the motion picture in the 1920’s. But still further triumphs awaited this popular amusement which had so marvelously evolved from the vitascope of only three short decades earlier. In 1928 Warner Brothers released a new film — Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. 37 Science had brought together sight and sound: here was the talkie. There had been several prior talking pictures, but the great success of The Jazz Singer marked the turningpoint.

Within a year their conquest of the silent film was complete. Sound effects were hurriedly inserted in such films as could not be made over, vocal numbers were added when possible, and all-dialogue pictures produced as quickly as the necessary equipment could be obtained. As theatres throughout the country were wired for sound, the talkies whipped up popular appetite for the movies as never before. The industry’s annual receipts rose between 1927 and 1929 to the tremendous total of a billion dollars, and weekly attendance jumped to an estimated 110,000,000 — the equivalent of four-fifths of the entire population going to a show once a week throughout the entire year.

The depression brought about a drastic decline in these figures as forced economies curtailed all private spending. For a time theatre managers had to watch steadily dwindling audiences, and the industry was almost overwhelmed by its wildly extravagant superstructure of fabulous salaries and expensive production costs. In a frantic attempt to attract greater patronage, the bars were let down on the sex-drama type of picture, double features were inaugurated, and many houses resorted to bank nights and money games — screeno, lucky numbers, and bingo.

Morals at the American Movies

These enticing lures, combined with partial recovery from the depression, finally succeeded in reversing the downward trend in admissions. In 1935 weekly attendance at the eighteen thousand theatres that had weathered the storm was estimated at 77,000,000, two years later it had risen to 88,000,000, and by the close of the decade it was again approaching the 100,000,000 mark.

Few Americans understood the economic causes of the Crash, but there was a widespread view that the Depression was a result not so much of the unstable economic expansion of the Jazz Age as of its hedonism. The movies themselves participated in this anxious reexamination of recent history, but often in a way that rendered them more liable to moral condemnation.

Many of their stories of gangsters and “fallen women” were set in the twenties. Stern moral conclusions suggested that the wages of sin seldom bought happy endings, reinforcing a lesson broadcast widely elsewhere; but the movies were accused of representing only too graphically the behavior they claimed to condemn. With the studios came the stars. The public hungered for new heroes and new sex objects, and the studios were quick to give the public what it wanted. Along with the stars who had been established in the early 1900s came the new generation of the 1920s: Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow. The stars soon became the nucleus of American myth, and the public followed the stars’ affairs, marriages, and extravagant lives with keen interest. This was the stuff Hollywood was made of. Fortunately there were behind these stars creative directors, such as Cecil B. DeMille, Eric Von Stroheim, and Henry King, who were able to mold the talents of the stars into movies.

While Griffith was learning how to get the most from screen actors, Thomas Ince was polishing the art of telling a story efficiently. In the early 1900s, he directed a few films ( Civilization, 1916, is the best known), but he quickly turned his attention to production, leaving the details of directing to others under his close supervision. His talent was for organization, and today he is credited with perfecting the studio system. Film is actually a collaborative art, and Ince learned how to bring the talents of many different people into a system that produced polished films, without the individualizing touches found in those films of Griffith or others who work outside the strict studio system.

One man who learned his trade from Griffith was Mack Sennett. Sennett worked for Griffith for a few years as a director and writer, but his interests were more in comedy than in melodrama. In 1912 he broke away and began to work for an independent company, Keystone. Here he learned to merge the methods of stage slapstick comedy with the techniques of film; the results were the Keystone Cops, Ben Turpin, and Charlie Chaplin. Sennett’s films used only the barest plot outline as a frame for comic gags that were improvised and shot quickly.

From the Sennett method, Charlie Chaplin developed his own technique and character. He began making shorts under the direction of Sennett, but in 1915 he left and joined with Essenay which agreed to let him write and direct his own films at an unprecedented salary. Here he fleshed out his tramp character; one of his first films for Essenay was The Tramp (1915). He continued making films that combined his own comic sense and acrobatic movements with social commentary and along with Mary Pickford became one of the first “stars.” Later he made features, such as The Gold Rush (1925) and Modern Times (1936). Sennett and Chaplin began a period of great film comedy. Buster Keaton combined a deadpan look with remarkable physical ability and timing. He too began making shorts, but soon was directing and starring in features, such as The General (1926). Harold Lloyd ( The Freshman, 1925) and Harry Langdon (The Strong Man, 1926) also created comic characters that demonstrated their individuality and imagination.

The extreme popularity of gangster movies, Universal’s horror films and Mae West’s bawdy comedies increased demands for government supervision of so important a social influence, and provoked repeated charges that the moral guidelines of the Hays Code were a sham and Hays himself only a fixer employed to disguise the industry’s misdemeanors.

Wide-spread publicity was given in 1933 to the Payne Fund Studies into the influence of motion pictures on the nation’s youth, and it became increasingly evident that same more drastic defense than the code against the threat of legislative control was necessary.

The Legion of Decency campaign launched by the Roman Catholic Church in 1934 provided the industry with an opportunity for a suitably public act of atonement and distracted public attention from more drastic proposals to reform the industry’s business practices and break the majors’ control over exhibition. In fact the stricter enforcement of the Code after 1934 became an instrument for the preservation of their power. As Hays had long argued, once the “organized industry” demonstrated that it could make morally acceptable movies without federal supervision, it could convincingly assert the general benefits resulting from its monopolyon decency.

To same extent each company, or studio, sought to establish a corporate identity in its productions, but only MGM and Warners really succeeded in imposing a consistent style on their output: MGM by the lavishness of its sets, costumes and lighting, Warners by the frenetic pace at which it told its stories.

It was not a coincidence that these were the only two studios whose management structure and personnel remained constant throughout the decade. At Wamer Bros, the flamboyant Jack Wamer ran the studio administration, but the Wamers’ style was dictated by the studio’s head of production, Hal Wallis, and his attention to pacing and detail in editing.

With other studios, aficionados might notice the art moderne emphasis in RKO’s set designs (in Van Nest Polglase’s sets for the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, for example), or the “European” style of comedy at Paramount, but such consistencies, which came from studios employing particular writing, camera or design teams, were more likely to be observed by industry professionals than by most of the audience, who were drawn to movies above all by their best-known stars.

With each of the major studios producing more than fifty feature films per year, no company could afford to specialize in any particular genre or type of production. Wamers’ crime films are remembered for the performances of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, but every studio made films about gangsters in the early 1930s, just as each studio had a comedy team spreading harmless anarchy sirnilar to that of the Marx Brothers at Paramount. Musicals and romantic melodramas were also staple products, while most Westems were B-movies made by small “Poverty Row” companies such as Monogram and Republic.

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