Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn

The Rise of Hollywood in 1920s and 1930s America

Written by Rehana Akudi

27th January 2020

Cinema is the ultimate form of escapism. The experience as we know it today tantalises our senses in every way – from the darkened focused environment, the specialised surround sound system ringing in our ears, and the smell and taste of the popcorn to take us away from the distractions of our home life. Total immersion is required. The world of the cinema has come a long way from the contrast of the immigrant owned nickelodeons of the turn of the twentieth century, where these first cinemas were so-called as it cost no more than a nickel to buy a seat on the dirty wooden benches in the poorest areas of American cities.


The world of cinema came into its own in America during the 1920s and many films were shown in opulent ‘picture palaces.’ The cinema became a place of luxury with plush red velvet seats and was known for its grandeur. Many cities and almost every town in the USA having one, some seating more than 4,000. The largest was the Roxy Theatre in New York City, which opened in 1927 with a capacity of allowing 6,200 people. An estimated 20 million people enjoyed this splendour every week.   As motion-picture technology improved in the years after the war, production companies moved to Hollywood and created “silent” films with elaborate sets and costumes. The legendary stars included comic star Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson (reigned supreme in her 22-room mansion in Beverly Hills), adventure hero Douglas Fairbanks, Lauren and Hardy and Buster Keaton. Even without sound, stars emerged and drew huge audiences. The films projected the age of the Roaring Twenties, images of affluence, fashion and fun. Women also constituted the majority of the cinema going audience. Various films demonstrated how women who favoured careers over homemaking ended up unhappy, for example This Freedom (1924).Its impact on the attitudes and behaviour was huge. Many older Americans were convinced that these films corrupted the youth by watching economically independent women like flapper Clara Bow showcasing their liberated lifestyles.

The Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland, California, was the largest multi-purpose theatre on the West Coast when it was built in 1931

In 1927, The Jazz Singer was the first “talkie” that hit the silver screen and the world were amazed once more.  The immortal words, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” marked the end of the silent movie era. The 1920s and the 1930s were the heyday of the American cinema with approximately 800-1,000 films being produced each year. (Compare that to today!) By 1930, one hundred million cinema tickets were being sold every week – statistically this would suggest that just about every person in America went to the cinema once a week.


Wizard of Oz, 1939

The establishment of the five-day work week, combined with high unemployment gave Americans more free time than ever before in history. The cheap entertainment provided by the cinema was an escape from the harsh reality of poverty. People who had little to wear and even less to eat still managed to find money to go. The movie industry had more than 15,000 theatres across America. Cinema going was much cheaper between the wars, films had cost a dime and theatre owners and film companies like Warner Brothers, for example, offered a range of giveaways and gifts to lure customers, such as sets of dishes or bags of groceries. The extravagant films produced during this time were The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), the first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) and Westerns like Stagecoach (1939) starring John Wayne.

Studio System

By the end of the 1920s, the film studios were organised on the basis of the ‘Big Five.’ Between them, these companies owned 90% of the US film industry. Movies produced during the years 1930-1948 became known as Hollywood’s Golden Age. ‘The Big Five’ included MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., RKO and Fox. The real power in Hollywood laid with them as they had almost total control of the actors, staff, technicians were contracted to a studio for seven years. Stars were pivotal to the success of a studio and were important to the development of a studio’s brand or marketing. For example, MGM made a $500,000 deal with Coke Cola that its stars would drink Coke during breaks from filming and during interviews for magazines. Therefore, movie stars were expected to behave in a way that fitted their screen image only.


Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in ‘It Happened One Night’

A New York Times reporter noted in 1923 that,

“What audiences see is partly a reflection of what they are. And what they are is no less influenced by what they see.”

The censoring of films was introduced by Will Hays and this was known as the Hays Code. It forbade films that might ‘lower the moral standards’ of audiences. This moralist code was introduced from 1930 to 1966, as there was a belief that some movies were corrupting society. All movies had to conform to the long list of both “be careful” and “don’t’s” which called for depictions of the “correct standards of life.” The list banned nudity, crimes against the law, scenes of passion, interracial romance and swearing. (See list here)

Hays had even ordered Walt Disney to remove the udders from his cartoon cows and during a scene in Clark Gable’s It Happened One Night: the lead characters spend a night together at a motel but a blanket divider separates the room into two sections and Gable wears prudish pyjamas. Stars with scandalous private lives were also forced to sign a ‘morality clause’ in their contracts, whereby they had to sign up to a good living and help improve society.  


What factors led to the development of cinema in the USA during the 1920s/1930s?

What was the impact of cinema on American society?

Why do you think this period known as the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ came to an end?

Some Film Recommendations:

Playlist: Rise of Hollywood

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

The Public Enemy (1931)

It Happened One Night (1934)

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)


Detailed information on Hollywood

The workings of the Studio System

The Golden Age of Hollywood

Hays Code

YouTube Videos:

Summary of the Golden Age

5 thoughts on “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn

  1. I think that the idea of a ‘Golden age’ of cinema only came to an end as American society progressed and the majority of American people no longer needed the escapism for harsh realities such as wars and civil rights struggles within society. Therefore the idea of a ‘Golden age ‘ of cinema is subjective to the audience and demographic of the time-period, as arguably Hollywood has continued to progress and develop in quality throughout the years. Of course cinema of the time had a large impact on peoples lives such as through the escapism of cinema and the presentation of idealism within society, however saying this many groups in society were not impacted through cinema as they were simply not represented in the movies themselves. Such as the gay and black communities within america that were not gives the opportunity to be represented within cinema, and are still to this day predominantly left out when it comes to Hollywood.


  2. Theatres and cinemas became an escapism for the American public during poverty stricken times, it was a place of luxury with the decorations, and the glamour and humour of the films deflected their attention from the reality of their lives for a short time. Even the poorest would scrape any money they could together to be able to go. ‘The Big Five’ owned the main companies who made the vast majority of films such as Warner Bros. They wanted to make these characters seem real and wanted them to act like their character.


  3. Cinema had a big impact on society especially during the hardship of unemployment, poverty and the reduction to a 5 day working week meaning people struggled to get by. But despite these circumstances the cinemas remained extremely popular. Cinema was a popular place to go, even when in extreme poverty, because it helped society forget about their difficult circumstances and provide an element of escapism. The films and theatres however still did show the stereotypical life of a woman but also the audience aimed to become like the stars in terms of fashion, affluence and fun. However the Hays Code was introduced to place restrictions on the cinema because they often portrayed a bad image onto society such as crime and violence. Therefore the intention of the films was to create a positive influence on society and improve their way of life by providing inspiration.

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  4. The cinema was the only form of true entertainment in some people’s lives. It transported them into a different world and gave them a smile away from the harsh world of poverty and unemployment. Cinema was extremely popular due to the shorter working week during the interwar years and rising unemployment, many people were fixed on the idea that maybe one day they could live like the stars on the screen. A very stereotypical way of life was presented on screen, a loving mother with a working father to provide for the family. It appeal to almost everyone and contributed to the growing use of the cinema. This was the ‘golden age’, a clear divide in the social system but nobody cared, everyone was happy and enjoying what they had and could afford.

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