Welcome to 1921: 100 Years Ago in the Movies

Allow me to begin by wishing all of you a happy and healthy 2021. I am exhausted from the year we just got through and wish that hope is present in all of your lives and health in your horizons, that positivity rules the day, and that moving pictures get you through the tough ones.

One of my hopes for 2021 is to blog more than I did last year, which means this is (hopefully) the first of many entries for the year. I enjoy blogging as much as I enjoy learning from fellow bloggers about the movies and their players. Along those lines I begin the year with what has become a tradition, a look back to one hundred years ago in the news and in the movies.

Setting the stage – 1921 Happenings

“Shuffle Along,” the first black musical comedy opened at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., in late March, 1921 for two weeks. It was later performed at the Sixty-third Street Theatre in New York City in May 1921. The show was a resounding success running for over 500 performances. Among the cast were Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Paul Floyd, Lottie Gee, Gertrude Saunders, Roger Matthews, Mattie Wilkes, Lawrence Deas, and Adelaide Hall. (Blackpast.org)

The first White Castle restaurants opened in Wichita, Kansas.

Bartender Pete Petiot invented the ‘Bloody Mary’ drink. Fernand “Pete” Petiot conceived of a rudimentary version while working at the famed Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. After Prohibition, Petiot brought the drink to Manhattan when he presided over the dapper King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel. For a time, the cocktail was rechristened the Red Snapper in a nod to more delicate American sensibilities. While at the St. Regis, Petiot dolled up the tomato-juice concoction with various seasonings—horseradish, Tabasco Sauce, lemon juice and celery salt. (liquor.com)

On August 22, 1921, J. Edgar Hoover became Assistant Director of the FBI.

For 18 hours on May 31-June 1, 1921, a white mob attacked residents, homes and businesses in the predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The event, known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, remains one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history, and one of the least known: News reports were largely squelched, despite the fact that hundreds of people were killed and thousands left homeless. (History.com)

In a joint resolution, the U.S. Congress declared WWI ended. (July 2)

On November 11, 1921, the first burial was held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

Likely the oddest piece of news included here is about a man named Willis Meadow. Mr. Meadow coughed up a bullet 58 years after he was shot in the eye during the Civil War. “Coughs Up Bullet” was a national newspaper story in 1921. Eleven years later, in a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” cartoon, it was published around the world in 42 countries and 17 different languages. (Mailtribunearchive)

New York Yankees pitcher Babe Ruth hit his 138th home run in June 1921. Ruth broke the career home-run record held by Roger Connor for 23 years. Babe Ruth would go on to extend his home-run record to 714, a record that would stand for nearly forty years until Hank Aaron broke it in 1974.

In 1921, the New York Yankees purchased 20 acres in the Bronx. That year the team made its first World Series appearance in 1921 after winning the American League Pennant. They lost the World Series to the New York Giants.

Coco Chanel introduced ‘Chanel No. 5,’ one of my favorite perfumes.

Influential songs in 1921 included Fanny Brice’s My Man and pop standard I Ain’t Got Nobody. Here is a list of songs from that year for some listening fun.

The phrase “A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words” first appeared in trade journal, Printer’s Ink in 1921. The phrase is attributed to advertising executive, Fred R. Barnard, who took an ad out in Printer’s Ink with the headline, “One Look Is Worth a Thousand Words.” He gave the original credit to a Japanese philosopher.

On the literary front, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Famed crime writer Agatha Christie published her first novel that year, The Mysterious Affair at Styles introducing the brilliant Hercule Poirot.

In the Movies

Rudolph Valentino shot to superstardom as one of cinema’s most popular screen lovers in 1921. Born Rodolfo Guglielmi in Castellaneta, Italy, Valentino arrived in New York at the age of 18. He worked as a taxi dancer until he decided to go West after getting involved in the trial of a friend who killed her husband.

Once in California Valentino landed bit parts in pictures and built a clientele for dance instruction as he had done in New York. He met and married actor Jean Acker in 1919, which proved a bad decision as she locked him out of their hotel room on their wedding night and sued for divorce. That incident resulted in just one of the negative stories – true and made up – that would plague his life and career.

Rudolph Valentino made five movies released in 1921, but two in particular changes his career trajectory straight to the top. March of that year saw the New York premiere of Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the top box-office winner of the year, which stars Valentino as Julio, a lover and artist who sacrifices for the greater good in the end in this romance adventure the type that would cement his stardom. Horsemen is particularly famous for the sexy Tango scene, which resulted in the dance taking hold across the country.

In October 1921 Valentino’s most famous movie, George Melford’s The Sheik, was released further cementing the image of the irresistible Latin lover. And irresistible he is. Sadly, Valentino despised that image. Still, he made an indelible mark and women the world over swooned at his image. The media questioned Valentino’s masculinity for all of the years he made movies, but the massive reaction to his premature death in 1926 at the age of 31 proved he had reached the pinnacle of fame in a matter of a few years and the world held him in high esteem.

More Notable Movie Releases

Gregory La Cava who would helm such classics as My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937) directed his first feature film, His Nibs, released in 1921.

Popular actor John Gilbert was credited with directing one picture, 1921’s Love’s Penalty, starring Hope Hampton.

Former criminal defense attorney, Leo McCarey directed his first picture in 1921, Society Secrets, starring Eva Novak. McCarey’s great pictures are too many to list, but include gems in genre ranging from Duck Soup (1933) to An Affair to Remember (1957).

The year 1921 saw the release of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, his first full-length movie as a director. The classic comedy still merits as many laughs as it does tears with Chaplin’s Tramp adopting an orphaned boy played to perfection by Jackie Coogan. The Little Tramp raises the child as his own teaching him the ways of life in charming style. Chaplin short The Idle Class was also released in 1921.

Another picture that ended up on audience’s must watch lists is D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm, the last Griffith film to feature both Lillian and Dorothy Gish, released in December of that year. Griffith also made Dream Street in 1921, which was not as significant to audiences as far as box-office goes, but the movie is regarded as the first feature film to use sound. Actually, experimental sound (in its introductory prologue) using inventor Orland E. Kellum’s sound-on-film system called Photokinema.

Frances Marion, known for her extraordinary writing talent, is credited with directing two pictures, both released in 1921: The Love Light starring Mary Pickford and Fred Thomson, Marion’s husband in his film debut, and Just Around the Corner starring Margaret Seddon.

Buster Keaton released a truckload of enjoyable shorts co-directed with Edward Cline in 1921. These include The Boat, The Goat, Hard Luck (said to be Buster’s favorite of his short movies), The Haunted House (said to be one of my favorites), The High Sign, and The Playhouse. While Keaton’s best work was still ahead of him, two years out from his first feature, these shorts are divine. Buster Keaton also had a big 1921 on the personal front, marrying Natalie Talmadge in May of that year.

Harold Lloyd appeared in five pictures released in 1921, four short subjects and one feature. The latter, Fred Newmeyer’s A Sailor-Made Man, is the one that stands out for being Lloyd’s first feature-length picture. Although they are all damn funny. The length of A Sailor-Made Man happened by accident as gags kept popping up and all were too funny to exclude. After the release and popularity of this movie, Lloyd appeared in feature-length movies regularly.

Fred Niblo’s The Three Musketeers starring Adolphe Menjou with the famous trio played by George Siegmann, Eugene Pallette, and Douglas Fairbanks; Little Lord Fauntleroy directed by Alfred E. Green and Jack Pickford starring his sister, Mary; William Nigh’s Why Girls Leave Home starring Anna Q. Nilsson, the only Warner Bros. picture to make a profit that year.

Released in March 1921, Emmett J. Flynn’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1921) was the first film adaptation of Mark Twain’s 1889 novel of the same name. According to several sources, this was also the first film to feature time-travel to the past. The picture was remade twice, in 1931 directed by David Butler and starring Will Rogers and in 1949, it was given the full musical treatment by Tay Garnett with Bing Crosby in the lead.

Finally, a shout out to Jess Robbins’ The Lucky Dog from 1921, which holds an important and special place in movie history as it is the very first picture Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared in together

On the picture front

Harry Houdini, known by most as a master of illusion, also dabbled in movies as some of you may know. It makes perfect sense as what greater illusion is there than a story told on a screen. Anyway, following his two-picture stint in Hollywood, Houdini returned to New York and started his own film production company called the “Houdini Picture Corporation” in 1921. Houdini directed a picture released in 1921, The Soul of Bronze, and produced and starred in two films, The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). In addition to that, Houdini also founded his own film laboratory business called The Film Development Corporation (FDC), gambling on a new process for developing motion picture film. Unfortunately, neither Houdini’s acting career nor FDC found success, and he gave up on the movie business in 1923, saying “the profits are too meager.” (Thegreatharryhoudini.com)

This is an interesting little tidbit. The first actor to play notorious outlaw Jesse James on film was his own son, Jesse James, Jr. in Franklin Coates’ Jesse James Under the Black Flag.

This next business is one of the most tragic events in the history of the movies on several fronts. It is perhaps the most notable event of 1921 and one of Hollywood’s most famous scandals.

In the summer of 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was on top of the world. Famous Players-Lasky paid him an unprecedented $3 million over three years to star in 18 movies, and he had just signed another million-dollar contract with the studio. Arbuckle’s latest movie, Crazy to Marry, was playing in theaters across the country to sold-out crowds. To celebrate Arbuckle’s good fortune his friend Fred Fischbach planned a Labor Day weekend at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. I imagine most people know the details of the Arbuckle case so for the purpose of expediency within a week’s time Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was sitting in Cell No. 12 on “felony row” at the San Francisco Hall of Justice, held without bail in the slaying of a 25-year-old actor named Virginia Rappe. His movie, Crazy to Marry, was quickly pulled from theaters, and the entire country was made privy to what the reformers had been saying all along – the off-screen lives of Hollywood actors were sordid on the best of days.

Although Mr. Arbuckle was eventually acquitted of rape and manslaughter, the scandal all but destroyed his career. Of course, not to minimalize the tragedy, Virginia Rappe died at age 26. She appeared in two short subjects released in 1921, Noel M. Smith’s The Game Lady and Charles Resiner’s The Misfit Pair, her final picture.

In 1921, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued Famous Players-Lasky for violating anti-trust laws by refusing to allow independent films to play in its theaters. This complaint, which charged Famous Players-Lasky with restraint of trade by forcing exhibitors to buy unwanted films. The investigation also brought studio-ownership of theaters under fire, and accused Famous Players-Lasky of using theater acquisition to intimidate exhibitors into block booking arrangements for Paramount movies. The case spent years in court until the FTC issued a cease-and-desist order in July 1927. In September 1927, Famous Players-Lasky reorganized and ultimately renamed itself Paramount Pictures Corp.

It should be noted that Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky, heads of Famous Players, started block booking in the teens. They realized that cutting out the intermediary meant they could reap all of the profits. They bought distribution companies and theater chains and controlled all aspects of the movie industry. Famous Players-Lasky became the biggest theater owner in the world. While the other major movie studios followed suit, Famous Players-Lasky was the big dog and its charges had the biggest impact.

Director Károly Lajthay’s Drakula Halála (1921) from Hungary (aka Dracula’s Death) is believed to be the first big-screen another adaptation of the character in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. This was released one year before F.W. Murnau’s better-known Nosferatu (1922) from Germany. I will have to look into this further as it looks like the 1921 movie used the exact name in Stoker’s novel whereas Murnau’s version had to change the character’s name due to disputes with Stoker’s widow.

On the continuing story of motion picture censorship… In 1921, The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI) tried to prevent New York from becoming the first state with its own censorship board in 1921, but failed. The New York State Legislature passed a bill that year establishing an independent commission to review and license films. Organizations that opposed government censorship and representatives of the film industry objected to the bill. D. W. Griffith and William Fox were among the Hollywood luminaries who spoke against the bill at hearings in Albany. Despite these protests, however, NY Governor Nathan L. Miller signed the bill into law as “the only way to remedy what everyone concedes has grown to be a very great evil.”  (NY State Archives) The corruption of morals was the most frequently used reason the NY Commission rejected a film. Two examples of rejected movies based on the corruption of morals were Famous Players Lasky’s Miss Lulu Bett (1921) and First National’s Hail the Woman (1921).

Born in 1921 – celebrating centennials

Steve Allen

Janet Blair

Dirk Bogarde

Charles Bronson

Harry Carey, Jr.

Gower Champion

Carol Channing

Chuck Connors

Deanna Durbin

Alan Hale, Jr.

Julie Harris

Judy Holliday

Betty Hutton

Louis Jourdan

Kitty Kallen

Deborah Kerr

Mario Lanza

Marilyn Maxwell

Yves Montand

Gordon MacRae

Susan Peters

Ella Raines

Donna Reed

Jane Russell

Simone Signoret

Alexis Smith

Jan Sterling

Lana Turner

Peter Ustinov


Esther Williams

Film Debuts

I am sure that by now you are as impressed with 1921 as I am. Still, the following list is what makes it a standout year it is in movie history. What would we have done without the work of the following group?

Billed as Jane Peters for the one and only time, Carole Lombard made her debut in Allan Dwan’s A Perfect Crime. Anointed by Life magazine as “America’s Screwball Queen learning her craft as one of the youngest and loveliest graduates of Mack Sennett’s “Pie Throwing Academy.” The story goes that director Allan Dwan saw 12-year-old Jane Peters playing baseball on the street and cast her in A Perfect Crime, although stories of her movie debut vary by source. I went with this one.

Fredric March began a distinguished stage career in 1920. In 1921, bored with his promising banking job, he searched for acting work and got it almost immediately, a $7.50 for one day’s work in George Fitzmaurice’s Paying the Piper released that year along with a few other movies in which he had uncredited parts. The rest is history. Fredric March is one of the truly great talents of stage and screen, consistently impressive in his six-decade long career.

Nineteen twenty-one short subject, Bullets or Ballots was the film debut of Mary Astor, another memorable golden-age actor whose performances never disappoint. Astor had for all intents a double career delivering memorable performances with equal vigor as romantic leading lady and one of cinema’s greatest femme fatales.

The lovely Billie Dove kicked off her 12-year movie career with Frank Borzage’s Get-Rich-Quick, Wallingford based on the George M. Cohan play in 1921. A former Ziegfeld Follies dancer, Dove was pushed toward Hollywood by Ziegfeld’s wife Billie Burke to ensure the young beauty did not get too close to the impresario.

The movie debut of George Arliss was as the sinister Dr. Muller in James Young’s The Devil released in January 1921. Arliss also starred in Henry Kolker’s Disraeli that year, a role he reprised in 1929 in the talkie version of the film directed by Alfred E. Green. Arliss won the Best Actor Academy Award for the 1929 film, making him the first actor to win an Oscar for a reprise role and the first to win playing a real person.

Richard Arlen entered movies with a small, uncredited role in George Loane Tucker’s Ladies Must Live released in October 1921. Arlen’s big break came when William A. Wellman cast him opposite Buddy Rogers and Clara Bow in Wings (1927).

Nineteen twenty-one saw the release of the first film that featured the four Marx Brothers together, the slapstick two-reeler Humor Risk (1921), which was never released. There are several stories circulating as to why the movie was lost after its one and only public screening, but my favorite is that Groucho hated it so much he burned the negative. The movie was filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey, making it particularly difficult to know it does not exist anywhere.

Robert Montgomery did not make his film debut until 1929, but his first acting happened in 1921 while he was enrolled at Pawling School in Pawling, New York. I thought this would be fun to share. Robert played the part of Mrs. Ralston in the play Nothing But the Truth. He was 17 years old.

Diana Serra Cary, popularly known as Baby Peggy, did not have a long movie career, but to put her instant popularity in perspective, she began in 1921 and appeared in 18 short subjects just that year. She was three years old.

Versatile stage actor Louis Calhern broke into films in 1921 with three pictures directed by Lois Weber, The Blot, Too Wise Wives, and What’s Worth While? Usually playing a snobbish aristocrat, Calhern appeared in numerous memorable films including the powerful crime-filled foursome of Notorious (1946), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and Blackboard Jungle (1955).

Last, but certainly not least, is Basil Rathbone, who made his film debut in Maurice Elvey’s Innocent in 1921. Rathbone appeared in a second feature that year, The Fruitful Vine, also directed by Elvey. Also in 1921, Basil Rathbone went to New York to make his Broadway debut in The Czarina. Not a bad year at all.

Mr. Rathbone had one of my all-time favorite film faces and so with it I end our trip down memory lane to start the New Year. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did putting it together. Stay well. Stay classic.

9 thoughts

  1. I enjoyed this so much! My mother was born July 22, 1921. Loved reading about these facts about her birth year. I was surprised to learn that WWI ended just 20 days before her birth! Thank you so much!

  2. What a superb post. So much to read about. I particularly liked the list of popular songs, so many of which I still love today!
    Thank you for doing all that research.
    ( on a blogger note, my ‘Like’ button refuses to work sometimes. Don’t know why.)

  3. Thanks for the songs!
    The centenaries are fascinating. So many people whose work we still enjoy. So many people whose careers intersect in interesting ways.

    I’m peeking around the corner at 2021, and hope at the end of it we find some new and happy memories. Thanks for all you do.

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