HAPPY NEW YEAR…1920, A Centennial Celebration

It’s been the practice here to honor notable film-related anniversaries at the onset of every year – Looking back to move forward, if you will. This year there is particular excitement across social media because 2020 brings with it echoes of a century ago, the decade called The Roaring Twenties when youth threw caution to the wind and enjoyed life to its fullest. It was an era of economic prosperity and interesting (to say the least) social and artistic changes, an era of happenings and creativity. Some of that is reflected in films depicting the Roaring Twenties, which – luckily for us – happens to be this month’s theme on TCM.

In all pictures about the Roaring Twenties you’re likely to see the Flapper, perhaps the most familiar symbol of the era. The Flapper helped the decade retain a certain “feel,” one of partying and promiscuity with distinct style and energy. In movie terms you might look to Colleen Moore and Clara Bow to get a sense of what the Flapper was like.

While the flapper enjoyed life throughout the decade, she gained considerable freedoms in 1920. On August 18 of that year the 19th Amendment was passed, giving women the right to vote. Due to the great economy at the time, millions of women worked in white-collar jobs and could afford to contribute in ways they previously could not. The increased availability of birth-control devices allowed for more personal choice and advances in technology helped the effort as well. Many homes in America, especially in the industrialized cities, were now powered by electricity, and effort-saving devices such as refrigerators, washing machines, irons, and vacuum cleaners, most of which were used by women, made life much easier as well.

Other inventions that came to be in 1920 include the hair dryer, invented by a women who inserted a hose in the exhaust of a vacuum cleaner. Brilliant! The traffic light was also born that year thanks to police officer William Potts who used red, amber, and green lights and $37 worth of wire to make his traffic light in Detroit, Michigan. The Band-Aid was invented by a man called Earle Dickson for his wife Josephine who cut herself often. The final invention worth noting was the automobile with the combustion, probably the most popular invention in the 1920s, which facilitated the Flapper lifestyle and led to many new jobs. The popular, reliable, and inexpensive Ford Model T made it all possible – and made it in the movies.


While previously mentioned freedoms were expanded, others were curtailed in 1920. The most famous being the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1919, but put into effect in 2020. The Federal Volstead Act, formally the National Prohibition Act, established to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment, banned the manufacture and sale of “intoxicating liquors,” and at 12 A.M. on January 16, 1920, the Act closed every tavern, bar and saloon in the United States. Tragic as that may seem to some, there was plenty of booze to go around thanks to unseemly types who took control of underground “wet” businesses.

Hollywood’s fascination with Prohibition and the times during which it took place have resulted in fantastic film offerings through the decades. Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002) is one example of a great modern film dealing with the subject. But I am here for the classics and suggest you revisit the following to get a sense of how colorful the world was during the Prohibition era:

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Another right was curtailed on June 13, 1920 when the US Post Office stated that children could not be sent by parcel post. Various instances of this occurrence made the law a necessity.

More interesting facts about 1920:

  • The average life span in the United States that year was about fifty-four years.
  • The top ten toys of the 1920s were:
  • On January 29, 1920 Walt Disney started work as an artist with KC Slide Co. for $40 a week.
  • On May 1, 1920 legendary slugger Babe Ruth hit his 50th career home run, his first for the NY Yankees in a 6-0 win over the Boston Red Sox. How sweet it was.
  • On May 16 Joan of Arc (Jeanne D’arc c. 1412 – May 30, 1431) was canonized a saint. Her life has inspired numerous films starting as early as 1900 with Georges Méliès’ Joan of Arc. I must admit I’ve only seen two films on this topic, but can recommend both: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s deeply affecting The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Victor Fleming’s visually appealing Joan of Arc (1948).
  • On June 2 the Pulitzer prize for Drama was awarded to Eugene O’Neill for Beyond the Horizon.
  • On July 29 rebel leader Pancho Villa surrendered to Mexican authorities. As it turns out Villa who had an interesting connection to movies as this Smithsonian Magazine article explains.
  • On November 2, 1920 the first commercially licensed radio broadcast was heard, from KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The first broadcast was live results of the presidential election, a transmission of breaking news that was new and unprecedented. The impact of the medium of radio and the importance of this 1920 event cannot be overstated.

1920 in Hollywood

By the early 1920s, the film industry had made its (more or less) permanent move to Hollywood from the East Coast. The face of American cinema was transformed. Hollywood was now the world’s film capital producing virtually all films shown in the United States and 80 percent of the revenue from films shown abroad. Many American towns had a movie theater with over 20,000 movie houses operating in the U.S. by that year. Most Americans went to see the movies at least once a week. The movie industry became a big business. And Hollywood’s position only got stronger as many of Europe’s most talented movie players arrived.

By the end of the decade, the movies claimed to be the nation’s fifth largest industry, attracting 83 cents out of every dollar Americans spent on amusement. It’s only natural then that through this journey Hollywood also became the ideal of many things in the audience’s eyes. In particular the movies excelled at extravagance, fun, and glamour – and they were the primary distraction through tough times. Here’s more…

  • In 1920, Metro Pictures Corporation (with its already-acquired Goldwyn Pictures Corporation) was purchased by early theater exhibitor Marcus Loew of Loew’s Inc. In another acquisition, Loew merged his Metro-Goldwyn production company with Louis B. Mayer Pictures.
  • In 1920 C.B.C. Film Sales Corporation was founded in 1920 by brothers Jack and Harry Cohn, and Joseph Brandt. C.B.C. was renamed Columbia in 1924.
  • On March 28, 1920 the wedding of the century took place when Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford joined in matrimony. Fairbanks bought a lodge for his new bride and it was named Pickfair, a place that soon became the social center of Hollywood. In June 1920 the couple joined fellow newlyweds Frances Marion and Fred Thomson on a European honeymoon.
  • On April 3, 1920 F. Scott Fitzgerald wed novelist Zelda Sayre at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
  • Director John Ford wed Mary Smith in 1920.
  • Charlie Chaplin discovered Jackie Coogan and chose him to play The Kid released in 1921.
  • Alice Guy, the world’s first female filmmaker and a key figure in the development of narrative film, directed her final film, the feature-length Tarnished Reputations (1920).

Born in 1920

I am astounded by the talent born in 1920. Expect major centennial celebrations for these important people who have given us so much joy through film and television.

Vincent Gardenia

Constance Moore

DeForest Kelley

Federico Fellini

Delbert Mann

James Doohan

Toshiro Mifune

Jack Webb

Denver Pyle

Peggy Lee

Yul Brynner

Maureen O’Hara

Shelley Winters

Ray Bradbury

Jack Warden

Mickey Rooney

William Conrad

Walter Matthau

Laraine Day

Montgomery Clift

Merlina Mercouri

Hy Averback

Nanette Fabray

Gene Tierney

Ricardo Montalban

Noel Neill

Virginia Mayo

Frances Gifford

Jack Lord

Tony Randall

Ray Harryhausen

Deaths in 1920

1920 is relatively early in the life of the movies so it’s not surprising only one stood out as notable…and particularly sad. On or about September 10 of that year actor Olive Thomas ingested bi-chloride of mercury from a French-labeled bottle in a darkened bathroom, believing it to be another medication. Found unconscious, she died five days later. The death made worldwide headlines. Olive was only 25 when she died.

With Olive’s death came a flood of stories linking her to alcohol and drug use and to sexual promiscuity. The evils of “movie people” were spotlighted along with her death by moralists everywhere. Regardless of the circumstances, which I believe have never come to light, this was the tragic death of a 25-year-old woman. Olive was survived by her husband Jack Pickford who was with her in Paris when the tragedy occurred. You can read more about the life and death of Olive Thomas at Silents are Golden.

Olive Thomas c. 1919

Among the notables who made their film debuts in 1920…

  • Mary Astor made her film debut by way of an uncredited part in Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow
  • Madge Bellamy made her debut in Edward José’s The Riddle: Woman.
  • Charles Boyer in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’homme de Large
  • Greta Garbo in Ragnar Ring’s How Not to Dress, which according to the New York Times obituary is a short sponsored by the department story where Greta worked as a sales clerk.
  • Alfred Hitchcock – Hitchcock submitted a portfolio of title cards for The Sorrows of Satan and The Great Day and is hired by Famous Players-Lasky British Producers Limited. (Hitchcock.zone)
  • Barbara La Marr , the girl who was too beautiful caught everyone’s attention when she co-starred with Douglas Fairbanks in The Nut in 1921, but she made her debut the year prior in Bertram Bracken’s Harriet and the Piper.
  • Victor McLaglen in A. E. Coleby’s The Call of the Road (1920) he gets a starring role right off the bat as a gambler-turned-boxer.
  • Nita Naldi – the story goes that her dancing was spotted by John Barrymore, who obtained her debut role for her in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920).
  • Claude Rains – we see him for a brief moment at the end of the film, but it’s a brilliant turn he delivers in his formal film debut as James Whale’s The Invisible Man in 1933, but as is news to me at this writing, Rains appeared in Fred Goodwins’ Build Thy House in 1920.

Notable Film Releases

Germany’s silent landmark classic, director Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released in the US in 1920.

Douglas Fairbanks’ first swashbuckler, Fred Niblo’s The Mark of Zorro (1920).

Buster Keaton made his first solo film appearance in the comedy short One Week (1920), after co-starring with Roscoe Arbuckle for the three previous years.

Legendary Broadway stage star John Barrymore appeared in the adapted Robert Louis Stevenson tale-horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) directed by John. S. Robertson.

Ernst Lubitsch’s Passion was released in the U.S. bringing attention to Polish actress Pola Negri.

Way Down Easta romantic drama directed by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish was a top grossing movie of the year.

Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton released several shorts each that are worth watching so check out their filmographies and get to it. Roscoe Arbuckle had a slow year given his star status in 1920, but that would all fall apart in 1921 following the Virginia Rappe scandal.

Harry Millarde’s Over the Hill to the Poorhouse or just Over the Hill starring Mary Carr was one of the top grossing films of the decade.

Paul Powell’s Pollyanna starring Mary Pickford was popular despite both screenwriter Frances Marion and Mary Pickford not liking it.

Shipwrecked Among Cannibalsa travelogue/documentary directed by William F. Adler, was the first Universal film to gross $1,000,000.

Cecil B. DeMille’s Something to Think About starring Elliott Dexter, Gloria Swanson and Monte Blue was popular with audiences.

Top Money-making actors

According to Quigley Polls from results of 1919 film releases.

Wallace Reid

Marguerite Clark

Charles Ray

Douglas Fairbanks

Mary Miles Minter

Mary Pickford

Clara Kimball Young

William S. Hart

Norma Talmadge

Theda Bara

Theda Bara in THE LIGHT 1919

I hope you enjoyed these hundred-year-old highlights. I look forward to what I hope will be a stellar, enjoyable year of blogging and wish you and yours the very best. Now, in 1920s lingo, “Go chase yourself!”

9 thoughts

  1. What a great post! I enjoyed learning about the inventions from 1920, and the significant films of the year. Thanks to your link on Clara Bow, I’m watching the BBC documentary tonight!

  2. Go chase yourself! Ha!

    I am flabbergasted by the number of people born in 1920 who both entertained and inspired me through the years. As fascinating as the history we will delve into throughout the year.

    Happy New Year, Aurora!

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