Given the industry’s dedication to sequels, Hollywood would do well to capitalize on this one: The 2020s seem on track to become a buoyant sequel to the 1920s, in all its frenzies and foibles – think the Roarin’ Twenties, Part II. But with the same ominous third act?
Consider the century-spanning parallels: The stock market was boiling in the 1920s, and so, as now, were the culture wars. The new media was eviscerating the old (remember radio?). Newly enfranchised women (even flappers) were pushing aside their inert bosses. Voters were applauding fiercely anti-immigrant legislation. In fact, the politicians’ rhetoric was veering relentlessly to the right with William Randolph Hearst playing the role of Rupert Murdoch, propping up President Warren Harding (he was Donald Trump without makeup).
Hollywood was enjoying this spectacle because the typical American was going to the movies once a week to capture the magic of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Mary Pickford. In 1929 a few stars even dreamed up an exercise in self-promotion called the Academy Awards (it was merely a dinner party).
To be sure, the Roarin’ Twenties are a mere fuzzy image to most Americans. Schools don’t teach its excesses. Stock market promoters ignore its consequences. But since we seem poised to re-live history, it may be worth trying to understand it — even its movies.
The best movies of the 1920s dwelled on the stark differences between the classes, as depicted by Chaplin (Gold Rush), Lloyd (Speedy) or Buster Keaton (The General). In The Idle Class, Chaplin plays both the impoverished Little Tramp and the tycoon who rules his life. In Metropolis, director Fritz Lang related a story similar to Parasite, where laborers working underground ultimately disrupt the grand lifestyle of their masters, who live one level up.
Audiences relished the comic, often noir movies of the period — ones that fortunately preceded
censorship codes. Some dealt candidly with homosexuality and criminal behavior, which went unpunished (the codes enforced punishment). The Mafia, its fortunes boosted by Prohibition, emerged as dark heroes.
If the movies (as many as 800 a year) flirted with reality, even adding sound to the experience, the spirit of 1920s culture remained downright giddy. The nation’s wealth doubled in the decade. Cars symbolized the new affluence: Ford’s Model T went on sale in 1924 for $260 and by decade’s end there was one car for every five Americans. Lacking Instagram or You Tube, Americans hovered around their telephones and radios. The first station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, spawned 500 within three years.
Black culture, too, exploded. Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston emerged from the Harlem Renaissance. The packed Cotton Club starred Duke Ellington. Jazz ruled the night life. So did alcohol, which the Volstead Act made all the more seductive.
Inevitably, the so-called “mainstream culture” was appalled by change. The flappers, with their short skirts, bobbed hair and cigarettes, dancing the Charleston or the Black Bottom, fascinated but threatened the local yokels. The writings of John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck or even Ernest Hemingway carried dangerous messages of rebellion.
Thus the American electorate, at a moment of great change, favored a retreat from change. Black Tuesday 1929 represented the ultimate moment of truth. The fortress of excess would instantly become a citadel of poverty.
It took many decades to recover from the Roarin’ Twenties, economically or culturally. But Trump America seems to be working hard on a sequel. That may be good news for Hollywood; it’s demonstrated its talent, not only for surviving sequels, but profiting from them.