The 1920s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News

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The 1920s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News



Live theater flourished during the 1920s, with a steady flow of finely written, introspective dramas and fast-paced, cynical comedies from contemporary writers. Theatergoers in New York City could choose from an array of plays staged at various Broadway venues or in the outer neighborhoods, such as Greenwich Village. At the start of the decade, the top playwrights were drawn to the New York stage, which was home to the nation's best dramatic talent. That situation changed, however, with the coming of sound to motion pictures in 1927 and 1928. As the studios made offers of high salaries to the most successful playwrights, creative talent migrated to Los Angeles. That factor, plus the drop in funding for mounting productions as a result of the stock market crash at the end of 1929, ended this cycle of lively activity in the New York theater.

The most memorable dramas and comedies of the decade were works of substance by a number of American playwrights: Maxwell Anderson, George Kelly, Samson Raphaelson, Marc Connelly, Philip Dunning, Elmer Rice, Sidney Howard, George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, and Philip Barry. Their plays offered perceptive commentary on a variety of topics. Among them were pokes at the eccentricities of the super-rich, social protests against the evils of poverty, searching studies of marriage and family relations, satires about false values, and occasional looks backward to the devastation World War I had left upon society. Often the dramatic approach was realistic; however, there also were flights of fancy. Two effective fantasies were written by Europeans: Liliom (1921), by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar (1878–1952), which a quarter-century later inspired the musical Carousel (1945), by Richard Rodgers (1902–1981) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895–1960); and R.U.R. (Rossom's Universal Robots) (1922), by Czech playwright Karel Capek (1890–1938), the play that first brought the word "robot" to the English language.

The outstanding dramatic playwright of the decade was Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953), who experimented with new techniques in writing and presentation. He mainly held to realism and naturalism in his approach to his dramas, but he sometimes used symbolism to reinforce his points. O'Neill also employed "expressionism," which distorts speech, action, and setting through simplification, exaggeration, and symbolism. In 1920, his successful drama The Emperor Jones, considered the first expressionistic play in the United States, premiered at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. In it, Brutus Jones, the pompous "emperor" of a small West Indies Island, escapes through the forest when he is removed from his throne. As he runs, Jones sees strange visions, fears for his life, and reverts to humanity's primitive nature. Throughout the decade, O'Neill continued to offer plays that have remained classics.


Musical variety shows called revues continued to provide entertainment to Americans on Broadway and in theaters across the country. Each year, Florenz Ziegfeld (1867–1932) produced his elaborate Follies. Other annual revues included: George White's Scandals, with songs by George (1898–1937) and Ira (1896–1981) Gershwin, performed during the first half of the decade; The Music Box Revue, featuring songs by Irving Berlin (1888–1989); The Earl Carroll Vanities; and The Greenwich Village Follies.

Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.

1920Beyond the HorizonEugene O'Neill
1921Miss Lulu BettZona Gale
1922Anna ChristieEugene O'Neill
1923IceboundOwen Davis
1924Hell-Bent for HeavenHatcher Hughes
1925They Knew What They WantedSidney Howard
1926Craig's WifeGeorge Kelly
1927In Abraham's BosomPaul Green
1928Strange InterludeEugene O'Neill
1929Street SceneElmer Rice

Musical comedies also were abundant during the decade, and they acquainted audiences with a stream of talented performers who would become successes in talking motion pictures. The musical stage comedy I'll Say She Is! introduced the zany comedy team of the Marx Brothers in 1924. Future movie star Fred Astaire (1899–1987) entertained audiences in a string of hit musicals, as did Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Bert Lahr, Ethel Merman, Helen Morgan, W. C. Fields, and Will Rogers. Also, a number of chorus members would find success in motion pictures at the close of the decade: Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, Paulette Goddard, and even James Cagney—who later became a major star in serious roles.

By the late 1920s, Busby Berkeley (1895–1976) was considered the top dance director of the New York stage. He, too, would join the migration to Hollywood and become a major director of musical films.

The most significant musical show of the decade was Showboat (1927), based on a novel by Edna Ferber (1887–1968). Before Showboat, the plots of musicals generally were thin and lightweight. Here, however, the story was meaty and controversial. It related the tale of a young showboat entertainer who loves a riverboat gambler, and the play had subplots about interracial relations. Because the songs were integrated into the dramatic action, Showboat took a step forward from its predecessors and paved the way for the modern American musical genre.


During the early part of the 1920s, a number of gifted, educated African Americans gravitated to Harlem, the neighborhood north of 125th Street in New York City where many blacks lived. This group included dramatists, poets, novelists, composers, and musicians who became the voice of the Harlem Renaissance, a term first mentioned in a 1925 article in the New York Herald Tribune to describe the tremendous creative activity going on in the African American community. During this time, black writing changed from works in Negro dialect and imitations of white writing to creations that expressed black culture and protest. Because a number of white people traveled to Harlem to share the nightlife in the many clubs, the Harlem Renaissance also received attention in the white media.

The movement was shaped by Alain Locke (1886–1954), a Howard University philosopher and the first black Rhodes Scholar who had published many thought-provoking essays in a publication he edited called The New Negro; and Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), a white editor and patron of the arts who was friends with many black writers of the day. Langston Hughes (1902–1967), known as the "poet laureate of the Negro race," published his first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926. His poems were stark and brutal visions of the poverty and anger felt by black Americans. Hughes is the most important literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance as well as an important, enduring figure in American poetry.

Other writers whose works are key to the movement are poet Countee Cullen (1903–1946), whose work Color (1925) encourages taking pride in African roots, and Jean Toomer (1894–1967) whose Cane (1923) is considered the first novel of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1928, Jamaican writer Claude McKay (1890–1948) published Home to Harlem, a gritty novel of black life whose militarism incited anger in more moderate African American leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) and Alain Locke. Nevertheless, Home to Harlem was highly praised and won awards. A number of female voices also emerged from the Harlem Renaissance, including writers Jessie Fauset, Nella Larson, and Zora Neale Hurston.

The Harlem Renaissance also had an impact on music. In 1921, an all-black musical Shuffle Along opened at the Sixty-Third Street Theatre, a rather tumble-down venue that was separated by several blocks from more established theaters in Manhattan. The score was written by Noble Sissle (1889–1975) and Eubie Blake (1883–1983), and spawned two hit songs, "I'm Just Wild about Harry" and "Love Will Find a Way." Even though the show did not receive much funding at first, due in part to racial prejudices, it received several good reviews and many theatergoers trekked uptown to see it during its 504-performance run. The unexpected success of Shuffle Along helped to make black shows fashionable during the 1920s.

The Charleston

The dance craze of the era was The Charleston, a high-stepping, jazzy dance for flappers and their male partners. "The Charleston" originated as a dance song by James P. Johnson (1891–1955) and Cecil Mack (1883–1944). It debuted in 1923 in Runnin Wild, an all-black musical show in New York City. The freewheeling dance was inspired by the movements of African American dancers in Charleston, South Carolina. It was fast-paced and boldly athletic, a change from the ladylike movements of couple-dancing. What's more, if the flapper wore a short skirt with fringe and rolled stockings, a lucky young man could catch a glimpse of his partner's bare thighs.


During the first few years of the twentieth century, the term "jazz" was used to describe a type of African American Creole music played by brass bands in the rough-sections of New Orleans. One pre-World War I definition of the term was a synonym for sexual intercourse! By the 1910s, black musicians across parts of the South and in Chicago were demonstrating a much broader interest in jazz music, setting up centers of jazz culture where musicians experimented with innovative ways to write and play jazz compositions. A number of composers and performers of popular songs—particularly Russian Jews such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Al Jolson, and Sophie Tucker—were incorporating jazz touches into their music.

What is jazz? It is an American style of music, inspired mainly by African American slave music and characterized by syncopated rhythms, distortions of pitch and timber, and some improvisation (playing without written music). Syncopated music involves displacing the accent from the regular metered beat and temporarily placing the accent on the weak beats. By the mid-1920s, symphonic composers such as Virgil Thompson and Aaron Copland, culture critic Gilbert Seldes, bandleaders John Philip Sousa, Paul Whiteman, and Vincent Lopez, and a host of other Americans were writing essays on the definition, origins, and meaning of jazz. If this type of music was not yet considered mainstream, at least it was a main topic of conversation among the musical literati (the intellectual elite of musical studies).

Among the most famous jazz musicians of the decade were a group of African Americans. Louis Armstrong (1901–1971) is considered by many as the greatest trumpet player ever. In 1922, he was playing cornet with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Chicago. Two years later, he joined the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in New York. Then in 1925, he formed his own jazz group, the Hot Five, which was a studio ensemble that produced 78-rpm vinyl records, some of which included Armstrong's distinctive gravelly singing voice, to be marketed especially to southern blacks. Since most Americans during the decade owned phonographs which could play these records, Armstrong soon found a large audience for his music. He became the most famous black musical entertainer of the period, eventually appealing to white music lovers, too.

Another notable black artist of the 1920s is Bessie Smith (1894–1937), one of the country's greatest blues singers. Blues was a style of jazz music first popularized by W. C. Handy (1873–1958) in the early years of the century; its songs repeat soulful moans or laments. Smith's lusty voice cried sad, fatalistic songs of misery. She toured the South with other black performers and made 160 recordings, which at that time appealed mainly to an African American audience. By the end of the decade, Smith lost popularity as more innovative forms of jazz made her traditional blues singing seem outdated.

Jelly Roll Morton (1885–1941) was an important jazz composer and pianist who claimed that he actually had invented jazz in 1902. While that was not true, he did think up a number of complex rhythms and musical flourishes that were innovative. Bix Beiderbecke (1903–1931) lived a relatively brief life, but he nevertheless became one of the most important jazz musicians of the era. A proponent of the Chicago jazz scene, he was a jazz pianist and has been called the greatest white trumpet player of all time.


During the decade, the seat of American literature actually appeared to be located in Paris, on the Left Bank of the Seine river. A colony of American writers settled there after World War I, and many stayed in Paris through the 1920s. Among the expatriates (those who leave their country to live in another) were a mixture of up-and-coming and renowned novelists, short-story writers, and poets: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, e.e. cummings, Hilda Doolittle (also known as H.D.), Janet Flanner, and Archibald MacLeish. These writers were joined by expatriate American artists such as Man Ray, Alexander Calder, and Jo Davidson.

Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction.

1920No award
1921The Age of InnocenceEdith Wharton
1922Alice AdamsBooth Tarkington
1923One of OursWilla Cather
1924The Able McLaughlinsMargaret Wilson
1925So BigEdna Ferber
1926ArrowsmithSinclair Lewis (declined)
1927Early AutumnLouis Bromfield
1928The Bridge of San Luis ReyThornton Wilder
1929Scarlet Sister MaryJulia Peterkin

Not all the American artists who set up residence in Paris were productive. Many of them formed a "Lost Generation," a term coined by Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) and quoted by Hemingway (1899–1961) in his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926). There were many young American artists whose creative philosophies were muddled by the events of the war, and who no longer could manage a clear sense of the world. They often lived on monetary donations from friends and family, spending their time drinking at Parisian cafes. Some were memorialized as subjects in the works of the more prolific and successful expatriate writers.

Writers during the 1920s continued to develop a modernist literary movement, which rejected traditional technique and morality and focused on the plight of the individual in an insensitive, mechanized, and commercial world. Perhaps the strongest influence on innovative English-language writing during the decade was the novel Ulysses, by Irish writer James Joyce (1882–1941), which had been published in magazine installments in the late 1910s but finally was published in book form in 1922. In Ulysses, Joyce uses a writing technique known as stream-of-consciousness to explore the inner lives of his characters, and he even concocts a type of private language. Many readers had trouble digesting this new style of writing, and it never caught on as a generally used literary style. However, American novelist John Dos Passos (1896–1970) adapted Joyce's techniques for Manhattan Transfer (1925), a patchwork quilt of episodes that convey a sense of New York City.

Another literary movement was building among southern writers during the decade. In 1920, the majority of southern novelists wrote about their region in terms of its pre-Civil War "Old South" traditions. Richmond, Virginia-based novelists James Branch Cabell (1879–1958) and Ellen Glasgow (1873–1945) launched an attack on the old southern school of writing and urged their colleagues to find new ways of treating southern material. The resulting new forms of writing became part of a movement known as the Southern Renaissance. Its greatest figure was William Faulkner (1897–1962), who found inventive ways to write about the traditional themes of the Civil War, the collapse of the old southern aristocracy, and the effects of commercialism on southern lifestyles.


Hollywood movies have often reflected society. As such, the movies of the post-World War I Jazz Age spoke to the newly adopted values and philosophies of American audiences. The younger generation of Americans had been most affected by the war; many citizens born into the twentieth century believed in a new morality, including new freedoms for women and the acceptance of the party-loving "flapper" or "jazz baby." Whereas their parents believed that rural life was pure and that the city was a den of sin, young people of the decade viewed the big cities—with

their tall buildings, anonymous crowds, and potential for fame and wealth—as places of unending excitement. Many films of the 1920s sought to bring these new thoughts and morality to the screen.

One of the best examples of the Jazz Age movie is It (1927), based on the book by Elinor Glyn (1864–1943), about a spirited salesgirl who has romantic feelings for her boss. Its perky star, Clara Bow (1905–1965), became known as "The It Girl." "It" became a term for undefinable sex appeal. Another of the genre is Our Dancing Daughters (1928), the story of a rich, party-loving flapper whose boyfriend is manipulated into marrying a more old-fashioned sort of woman. In this film, star Joan Crawford (1904–1977) performs the Charleston, the most popular new dance of the decade.

Additionally, there was a postwar spirit of exploration that inspired many films about adventures in exotic places. Stories transported movie-goers from the windswept Sahara Desert to the North Pole. Documentaries captivated audiences: examples are Nanook of the North (1922), shot in the Hudson Bay region, and Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927), shot in the jungles of Siam, which now is Thailand.

Two popular romantic adventure stories that combined the new morality with exotic locales starred romantic heartthrob Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926) as The Sheik (1921) and Son of the Sheik (1926). Valentino's hot-blooded moves may be laughable to current audiences, but they demonstrated a new sensuality that entered American films during the 1920s.


For most of the decade, movies were "silent films." They actually were shown with accompanying piano scores, or even full orchestral accompaniment in big city movie palaces (huge, elaborate theaters often designed with Oriental or other exotic themes). Attempts were made to add recorded soundtracks to motion pictures, but there were problems with synchronizing picture and sound and with amplifying the sound. By the mid-1920s, two systems had been perfected. One was called the Movietone system, with a soundtrack laid right onto the strip of film. The other was the Vitaphone system, which relied on the playing of a large vinyl disc on a special phonograph machine that worked in concert with the film projector. Feature films such as Don Juan (1926) began to be made with synchronized music and effects, and short films even featured performers talking and singing.

Even so, very few theaters committed to installing sound equipment until a then-fairly insignificant studio named Warner Bros. produced The Jazz Singer, a feature-length melodrama with musical numbers, in the summer of 1927. The film tells the story of the son of a devout Jewish cantor (a religious official who leads musical parts of worship services) forsaking his traditional role as the next-generation cantor in order to pursue a secular life as a jazz vocalist. The movie featured Al Jolson (1886–1950), the country's most popular musical stage star. Enthusiastic audiences flocked to theaters to see their favorite entertainer in a sound film. Actually, aside from the singing scenes, there was only one scene featuring dialogue; in it, Jolson has an extended conversation with his mother. Yet this film was so successful that audiences clamored to hear as well as to see motion pictures. Within a year or two, most theaters across the nation were fitted with sound systems, making silent films a thing of the past. By the end of 1929, studios advertised that their movies were "all singing, all dancing, all talking."

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards (The Oscars).

1927 to 1928
Actor:Emil Jannings, The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command
Actress:Janet Gaynor, Seventh Heaven, Street Angel and Sunrise
Director:Frank Borzage, Seventh Heaven and Lewis Milestone, Two Arabian Nights
1928 to 1929
Actor:Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona
Actress:Mary Pickford, Coquette
Director:Frank Lloyd, Divine Lady
Picture:The Broadway Melody
1929 to 1930
Actor:George Arliss, Disraeli
Actress:Norma Shearer, The Divorcee
Director:Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front
Picture:All Quiet on the Western Front


Several schools of American modern art dominated the 1920s. The "Ash Can School," named for a painting by John Sloan (1871–1951) of a woman rummaging through a trash can, included realistic paintings of informal, sometimes downright seedy, subjects. Sloan, along with George Bellows (1882–1925), continued to produce important work during the decade. Cubism, a form of abstract art that stresses color, texture, and construction in collage, remained popular, particularly among a group of American artists who were influenced by photographer and editor Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), the founder of Gallery 291 in New York City. Precisionism (also known as Cubist Realism or Cubo-Realism) presented subjects with accuracy or realism, but with a simplicity that achieved an abstract effect. Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986), who was married to Stieglitz, was associated with this school, as her close-up studies of flowers and plants attest. So were Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) and Charles Demuth (1883–1935). Sheeler had an austere style, exemplified by his painting Upper Deck (1929). Demuth painted in a variety of styles, but in the 1920s he was a precisionist, as can be seen in his Industry (c. 1924) and My Egypt (1927).

New Orleans-born painter Archibald Motley Jr. (1891–1981) held a special place in the decade's art scene. He decided to paint in abstract forms while studying in Paris, and he was the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition of his works in a commercial gallery.

Edward Hopper (1882–1967) and Charles Burchfield (1893–1967) were realist painters who also enjoyed success during the decade. Hopper's paintings, such as House by the Railroad (1921), offer a sense of isolation and loneliness. Burchfield's work portrays the natural world with touches of evil and hostility, evident in his House of Mystery (1924).


After the war, there was a boom in consumerism. With the public scurrying around to find the most appealing vacuum cleaner, dress shirt, automobile, or bath soap, the advertising industry expanded to meet the needs of product manufacturers. One of the most powerful advertising agencies, J. Walter Thompson, billed out $10.7 million to clients in 1922; in 1929 it billed out $37.5 million.

The age of the advertising slogan had arrived. Lucky Strike (cigarettes) urged women to "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet," during a decade when few respectable women smoked in public. Woodbury facial soap was "For the skin you love to touch," while Palmolive soap would help its users "Keep that schoolgirl complexion." And one should use Listerine mouthwash to stop bad breath when "Even your best friend won't tell you."


A variety of different magazines appeared in the 1920s to satisfy every possible audience. Fan magazines had been available to motion picture enthusiasts during the previous decade, but the 1920s brought a more provocative type of movie star magazine to the public. These periodicals carried stories of wild parties, romantic entanglements, and star jealousies. The popular titles included Photoplay, Screenland, and Screen Romances.

Captain Billy's Whiz Bang began in 1919 as a joke sheet that sold in hotel lobbies for 25 cents. The man behind Captain Billy was Wilford H. Fawcett (?–1940); a whiz bang was the slang term for a World War I shell. Captain Billy's jokes were lewd, and the stories contained plenty of out-house humor. Even so, by the mid-1920s, each issue was selling nearly a half million copies. This objectionable periodical was so successful that profits from its sale laid the foundation for the Fawcett publishing empire of magazines and paperback books.

The appeal of "hard-boiled" or realistic, sometimes gory detective stories spanned the decade. Because these fictions were published on cheap wood-pulp paper, they gained the nickname "pulps." The best and most famous magazine in the genre was Black Mask. In it, author Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) published stories of tough characters, writing with a fast-paced wit.

Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961), a former Pinkerton detective, published stories in Black Mask beginning in 1922. In one of the pioneering moves toward making pulp fiction respectable, several of Hammett's stories about a detective identified only as the Continental Op (short for operative, a word meaning detective) were published by an imprint of Alfred A. Knopf, along with Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest (1929).

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The 1920s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News

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The 1920s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News