1910s: Film and Theater
1910s: Film and Theater
One of many amusements in the 1900s, movies began to compete seriously with books and magazines for people's leisure time in the 1910s. By 1916, twenty-five million Americans attended a movie every single day. Advances in technology and in the art of filmmaking helped make movies such an important part of American popular culture. Technologically, films could now be longer and could be shown on a bigger screen. Artistically, directors had developed the art of telling a story on film. They used rising "stars"—actors and actresses loved by their audience—to craft dramatic stories.
Nickelodeons, which showed short, one-reel films (films that fit on a single reel and were generally ten to twelve minutes long) in cramped spaces, faded in popularity during this decade. Soon the little nickelodeons were replaced by large, ornate theaters in many big cities. These "movie palaces," which seated hundreds of viewers who enjoyed the splendor of the setting, made going to the movies a special treat. Filmmakers soon made two-, three-, eight-, and even twelve-reel movies. These movies, called features, were long enough to tell a detailed story. Movies were still silent, of course, for sound would not come to films until the late 1920s.
Film production, which had once been centered in New York, relocated westward, settling in an area near Los Angeles, California, known as Hollywood. Open space and good weather allowed movie studios to make more and better movies. The most notable directors soon became famous. The best-known director of the day was D. W. Griffith (c. 1875–1948), director of the famous Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959) soon built a solid reputation. Griffith and DeMille and other directors also turned to stars to help draw viewers to their movies. Among the best known stars of this early era of film-making were "America's Sweetheart" Mary Pickford (1893–1979), "Latin Lover" Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926), Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977), Lillian Gish (1893–1993), Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939), Tom Mix (1880–1940), and many others.
On the stage, vaudeville was still the most popular form of live entertainment. A form of variety theater that included a range of acts, vaudeville shows were performed all across the nation, in towns large and small. In many cities outside the South, African Americans participated in mixed-race vaudeville performances or toured with vaudeville shows of their own. Many of the most famous vaudeville performers of the day—including Chaplin, the Marx Brothers (Harpo, 1888–1964; Groucho, 1890–1977; Chico, 1886–1961; and Zeppo, 1901–1979), George Burns (1896–1996), and Jack Benny (1894–1974)—went on to star in movies and, several decades later, television. Large cities often had ornate theaters to house their vaudeville shows, and these theaters also showed movies.
Musicals and musical revues also gained in popularity during the decade. The most famous musical revue was the annual Ziegfeld Follies, which ran from 1907 to 1931 but was most popular during this decade. Though Broadway was still struggling to develop a successful theater tradition, a trend called the Little Theater Movement saw the birth of local theater companies across the country. Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953), who would become one of America's most famous playwrights, had his first play performed by the Provincetown Players in New York City in 1916.