The Roaring Twenties, the Golden Twenties, the Jazz Age. This decade had many names, but both in Europe and the USA, as in many other places, the decade was one of optimism and economic growth. The markets were rising rapidly after the devastation of WWI, and the reconstruction meant industries were booming. The 1920’s was a prolific period for new inventions and improvements to existing technology, that had a major impact on the way people lived. Many of the household items that we take for granted today were either invented or developed into viable commercial products in the 1920’s. Labour saving, entertainment and comfort enhancing items like electric irons, toasters, refrigerators, air-conditioners, radio and vacuum cleaners, were just a few. These were the kinds of items that only 20 years earlier had seemed like utter science fiction. Movies now also looked boldly ahead at what scientific breakthrough would bring in the decades to come. Rapid urbanisation anticipated giant cities like Metropolis or the art deco capitals of the British film High Treason, with airplanes hovering in the skies, video chats and mechanical orchestras in dance halls. These were new and exciting times. Whole new industries and employment opportunities opened up to manufacture goods for the rapidly expanding retail market.
But there was also great anxiety, not least in war-losing Germany, greatly burdened by sanctions, over the many ideological movements gathering steam, which seemed to be on an inevitable collision course. Socialism, nationalism and anarchism all cast their shade on the capitalism that thrived from the new innovations of science and the upturn in economy due to the rapid rebuilding of countries after the war. New technology and industry also meant more slaves to the grind, as films like the German Metropolis or Soviet Aelita would present it — with its terrifying machines eating up dirty, exhausted labourers, housed like slaves in underground cities, waiting for a saviour to lead them to revolution — a saviour that might more often than not be a false Janus. Mankind’s understanding of the miniature world of atomic and sub-atomic particles increased enormously and opened the door to future development of new forms of power and weapons, fuelling the many tales of death rays and weapons of mass destruction in films like Rene Clair’s The Crazy Ray, or another French film — The City Struck by Lightning. Death rays and superweapons were also the stuff that MacGuffins were made of in the thriving, action-packed films serials of the US.
The infinite world of the universe and particularly our solar system revealed some of its secrets to astronomers and scientists. For example, a lot more was learnt about Jupiter and Mars. In 1926 US astronomer Robert Goddard became the first person to launch a liquid-fuel rocket, the forerunner of today’s awesome giants that have lead to man on the moon and exploratory visits by spacecraft to many of the planets. And building on the theories of USSR scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a young generation of rocket enthusiasts gathered around Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Woman in the Moon as consultants would go on to found the first society for promoting space exploration — including the architects of the US space program, Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley.
The era saw the large-scale adoption of automobiles, telephones, motion pictures, radio and household electricity, as well as unprecedented industrial growth, accelerated consumer demand and aspirations, and significant changes in lifestyle and culture. The media began to focus on celebrities, especially sports heroes and movie stars. Most independent countries passed women’s suffrage after 1918. The Roaring Twenties also had an effect on life in the newly formed USSR. While life was still harsh for poor people, as it had been under the Tsar and the wealthy aristocracy, there was a sense of optimism as many thought they were now building a better world under communism. V.I. Lenin’s NEP-policy allowed for a certain amount of private entrepreneurship with the aim at boosting the economy, and the Soviet Union experienced a rare period of sexual and moral liberation and freedom of arts and culture.
The Roaring Twenties brought about several novel and highly visible social and cultural trends. These trends, made possible by sustained economic prosperity, were most visible in major cities like New York, Chicago, Paris, Berlin and London. “Normalcy” returned to politics in the wake of hyper-emotional patriotism during World War I, jazz blossomed, and Art Deco peaked. For women, knee-length skirts and dresses became socially acceptable, as did bobbed hair with a marcel wave. The women who pioneered these trends were frequently referred to as flappers. In film there was none more famous than Clara Bow, who was also seen in a science fiction film, Black Oxen, in one of her earlier entries.
Exciting art movements were brimming in Europe: from the modernist and constructivist painters, architects and sculptors, as well as new theories in dance and theatre in the USSR, to French impressionism and German expressionism. All of these made an impact on the design, the acting, the direction and the subject-matter of films, not least science fiction films. This was the heyday of German expressionism, producing directors like Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst, Erich von Stroheim, Michael Curtiz and many more. Soviet and French filmmakers were also experimenting with the still young art of the film, exploring its possibilities and nature. To the impressionists film was an ultimate art form, which could incorporate all others, raising it from its crude beginnings as a vehicle for hour-long entertainment vessels. Marcel L’Herbier tried to combine all art forms into cinema in his exciting bomb The Inhuman Woman and Soviet filmmakers were putting montage theory to the test in films like Lev Kuleshov’s The Death Ray. German expressionists pioneered the horror movie with entries like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, The Hands of Orlac and many more. The US instead brought us superb slapstick comedy, romantic comedies, lavish biblical and historical epics, and adventure and action film serials — not forgetting the hugely popular western, of course.
For science fiction this was an important decade, if for nothing else than for the fact that it was the decade when the term “science fiction” was coined. In France author and editor Maurice Renard had been championing the notion that science fiction, or as he called it, the “roman merveilleux-scientifique”, the scientific-marvellous novel, was a genre unto its own, almost since the beginning of the century. However, this term never reached outside the French language area. It was Luxembourgish-American inventor, writer, editor, and magazine publisher Hugo Gernsback that first coined the term scientification literature (which he preferred) in 1926, and then science fiction in 1929. In 1926 he launched the first pulp magazine devoted entirely to SF, Amazing Stories. The magazine was seminal for bringing together SF authors and Gernsback’s “letter column” provided the basis for science fiction fandom. The magazine introduced young readers to the stories of Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe and H.G. Wells, but also published new, still not famous authors such as Claire Winger Harris, A. Hyatt Verrill, E.E. “Doc” Smith and Jack Williamson. It also introduced the futuristic space hero Buck Rogers in the story Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nolan.
While Edgar Rice Burroughs had written his seminal science fiction stories in the 1910s, he was still immensely popular in the twenties, and continued to produce tales set in his fictional worlds of Barsoom (or “Mars” for mugglers) and Pellucidar at the Earth’s core. His disciples in the late 1920s were writes like Edmond Hamilton and most notably E.E. “Doc” Smith, who in their books Crashing Suns and The Skylark of Space, respectively, outlined interstellar police forces, laying the foundations of the space opera. Another hugely influential author of the decade was H.P. Lovecraft, who continued the tradition of otherworldly horror established by E.T.A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe. He wrote some of his most seminal pieces in the twenties, such as Herbert West — Reanimator, The Music of Erich Zann, Azathoth, The Horror at Red Hook, The Shunned House, Rats in the Walls, Pickman’s Model, and most importantly The Call of Cthulhu. While the notion of a “great beyond” or parallel reality was thoroughly explored by Poe, Lovecraft actually went about describing this other plane, and especially its alien (or interdimensional) beings.
The Mad Planet by Murray Lenster was a post-apocalyptic tale where Earth has been reduced to a large swamp inhabited by monstrously large insects and critters, inspiring a number of fifties movies. Jack Williamson’s The Metal Man was one of the first stories dealing with the effects of radiation on a human (albeit quite fictionally). H.G. Wells continued to produce literature, although his novels Men Like Gods, The Dream and Meanwhile were rather fictionalised accounts of Wells’ utopian philosophy than science fiction in a conventional sense.
Both J.-H. Rosny, Sr. and Maurice Renard produced French sci-fi, the first publishing one of his best known books, The Navigators of Space and the second The Man with the Stereoscopic Eyes. Germany saw a number of fictional books concerning moon voyages, inspired by the rocket-craze of the late twenties. In Britain Arthur Conan Doyle produced a few science fiction stories in his extremely popular Professor Challenger Series, and Scottish author David Lindsey produced the philosophical SF/fantasy epic A Voyage to Arcturus, which had a huge influence on writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. A fact that is often overlooked is that the USSR had a thriving science fiction scene in the twenties. Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote his dystopian novel We, often compared to Orwell’s 1984, and famed author Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a two satirical SF novels, including The Fatal Eggs, which seems inspired by H.G. Wells’ Food of the Gods. Trying to counter-act the influx of American and Western European juvenile novels, the Soviet Union produced a respective quantity of detective novels, adventure stories and science fiction books. Worthy of special mention are Alexei Tolstoy, who wrote the hard-boiled spy-fi novel The Garin Death Ray and the space opera Aelita, as well as Alexander Belyaev, who put interesting spins on the mad scientist trope in books like The Air Seller and the romantic Amphibian Man. The latter is interesting inasmuch as its story bears some resemblance to that of the later film The Creature of the Black Lagoon and especially Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. The story was turned into a Soviet film in 1962, which plot is so similar to del Toro’s 2017 film that it sparked accusations of plagiarism. Pulp writer Marietta Shaganyan also dabbled in spy-fi in her novel Miss Mend.
Film budgets grew rapidly as palatial cinemas rose across the world. New visual effects such as the bipack process, the travelling matte, rear projection and the Schüfftan process allowed for ever more fantastical images to be shown on screen — the impossible made possible. There were also great leaps ahead in stop-motion puppet animation, as shown in two films released in 1925. The Hollywood movie The Lost World brought us living, breathing dinosaurs and the German educational film Our Heavenly Bodies took us out among the planets and the stars.
And of course, this was the time when Hollywood rose to dominate the movie business. Relatively unharmed by WWI, the US quickly took advantage of the devastation of the European film businesses, with the exception of Germany, who had played it smart during the war and nationalised their film scene into the powerful state-owned company Ufa. On the scene emerged stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle, Louise Brooks, as well as John Barrymore — celebrated as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, the makeup genius Lon Chaney — the man of a thousand faces, and Anna May Wong — the first Asian Hollywood star, and many more.
During the twenties America obliterated the French and Danish dominance in cinema. Still, the US was slow in catching up with Europe’s science fiction wave, most prominent in Germany and France. The end of the decade brought about a few serious attempts to turn science fiction into the mainstream with lavish European productions like Metropolis and High Treason, but ultimately they failed, despite their artistic and technical merits. (Although Metropolis‘ “failure” is relative — it was the 7th highest grosser globally in 1927, that’s according to Wikipedia).
Then, by the end of the decade the rumble that had been heard in the distance since the very inception of the movies suddenly grew louder. It took form and shape. It was the sound of … Al Jolson. Some fell to their knees and raised their arms in praise toward the sound of the vaudeville star performing blackface in sub-par musical comedy The Jazz Singer in 1927. Other recoiled in horror and disgust. Directors like Fritz Lang and Charlie Chaplin were personally offended by the idea of talking pictures. Who ever heard of such folly? It was the moving pictures. If they were supposed to have sound, then someone would have named them moving pictures with sound. But the Broadway producers and composers heard it, too. And they heard the sound of money. There was an explosion of predominantly bad musical comedies as the stage stars suddenly descended upon Hollywood — 1929 saw over 100 musicals made.
The coming of the talking pictures turned the movie business upside down. For the European export of films sound was disastrous. Previously an Italian movie could be enjoyed anywhere in the world. All you had to do was change the intertitles. Now suddenly to export a film from Italy to France, you had to make it twice, first in Italian and then in French. Of course, later this problem was remedied with the help of dubbing and subtitling, but in the early days of sound, big budget movies were sometimes produced in two or even three different versions, sometimes with a completely different crew and cast.
For Hollywood this presented both a problem and a boon. As the influx of foreign films greatly diminished, American studios gained almost complete control of the domestic market. But of course, the pendulum swung both ways: it naturally made it increasingly difficult to export Hollywood films — one must remember that in the late twenties English still wasn’t the lingua franca that it is today. That it became so was largely due to the influence of Hollywood. Because Hollywood had an advantage: it had its internationally known stars. And people still wanted to see Douglas Fairbanks and Greta Garbo. For the British film industry the coming of sound had potential, but was mostly looked at with dread. As Hollywood lost market shares in non-English speaking areas, it now looked at Great Britain with laser-sharp focus. The UK was saved from being completely swamped with American films by the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, which demanded that a certain quota of films showed in UK cinemas had to be made in the British dominions, including Australia and Canada (this inclusion was removed by the modified act of 1938). Initially the quota was set at 7,5 percent, but raised to 20 percent in 1935. This gave rise both to boom-and-bust studios and to the so-called quota quickie, the UK version of the B-movie. Eventually, some British and American studios decided that co-operation would benefit both parties. Often films could be made cheaper in the UK than in Hollywood, with authentic locations rather than sets, and instead of sending over a whole Hollywood crew, Hollywood studios would co-fund British productions, and perhaps send over a couple of Hollywood stars for added domestic appeal. And British studios benefited from cheap and effective distribution in the US without having to compete with American studios.
There’s a myth that is now largely debunked that the talkies “killed” a whole slew of silent movie stars because they couldn’t transition into sound films. In fact, most silent actors had stage backgrounds, and many did transition perfectly well. Others quit sometime between 1927 and 1935, but for completely other reasons. A few did have funny voices or speech impediments, but the ones that were forced out of the business because of it were a tiny minority. Some that had problems transitioning took a break, practised and returned. Some even rose to fame in he beginning of the talkies despite speech impediments. Boris Karloff’s lisp is a case in point.
It is true that a few foreign actors did have problems. Some didn’t speak very good English, but Hollywood has always been full of actors who don’t speak English. Their accents were seldom a problem in and of themselves, rather that their on-screen personas were associated with un-accented roles, or indeed with characters with other accents than their own. Vilma Banky was a victim of this. Her accent was no worse than Greta Garbo’s, but Garbo was already seen as an exotic European beauty in the silents, so no-one had a problem with her accent in the talkies. But Banky had predominantly played American sweethearts, and couldn’t continue doing that with her Hungarian accent. Other Hungarians were launched to stardom by the talkies. During the silent era Bela Lugosi was a slumming bit-part player who made an extra dime by playing Transylvanian counts on Broadway (in fact many foreign actors thrived on stage, despite their accents). But his commanding voice and exotic accent made him one of the greatest stars of Hollywood in the thirties. Conrad Veidt and Emil Jannings both spoke bad English and went back to Germany just in time for Hitler. Not because they couldn’t get any roles, but because they felt uncomfortable in acting in a language they didn’t master. Jannings became a Nazi and had a great career during the Third Reich. Veidt improved his English, moved to the UK and continued playing leads there, before making a second successful appearance in Hollywood. In fact, before moving to England he was the go-to guy when German filmmakers needed a well-known face to play the lead in the English-language export versions of their films. And some some actors simply didn’t like working in sound pictures, either because of the new acting style that was required or because they didn’t feel at home on the now — paradoxically — quiet sets. So they simply up and quit, either to retire or to start a new profession. Which a lot of actors have done through film history, regardless of new innovations.
No, the fact is that the coming of sound was much less of a problem for actors than the rest of the production machinery. Studio heads suddenly had to put out huge amounts of money on sound equipment and hire sound technicians — which there weren’t nearly enough of, so some of them had no idea what they were doing. The whole process of making films changed. Nobody actually knew how to write scripts for sound films, because it had never been done. That’s why so many of the early sound films are so incredibly bad. And why such a huge amount of early talkies are adapted from stage plays — often badly. Directors didn’t necessarily have a clue how to direct dialogue. And now there were microphones to worry about. They had to be either off-screen in tight shots or hidden on set in wide shots. And now suddenly a director couldn’t just film an actor freely riding along the great plains of the west if he had dialogue, because he had to be near a microphone. Doubly difficult in outdoor shooting where wind and rain suddenly became an issue. And many cameras were extremely loud back then, so the microphones would pick them up. So they had to be either far away of muffled, or the sound had to be dubbed in post-production. Which, again, neither actors nor directors had any experience with. Editing for sound was a completely different story than editing for a silent. As a result, the quality of films on average dropped drastically in the late twenties. 1927 saw the peak of the silent film with visual masterpieces like F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, Lang’s Metropolis, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa, Abel Gance’s Napolon and William Wellman’s Wings to The Jazz Singer.
And then in October 1929 came the Great Depression, which changed the mood of the US public, and meant that films entered the 1930s in a very different world. A world of Gods and Monsters …