The Golden Age of Hollywood

movie spot light

Booming business was sustained by heavy labor. Where better for the worker to escape the day’s drudgery than the movie theater? And millions did. There, a vicarious experience awaited, wrapped in Hollywood glitz – damsels caught in the embrace of a sheik, swashbucklers fencing with pirates, and chorus lines dancing their way across a larger-than-life silver screen.

Prior to World War I, movies were popular but still in their infancy. Hollywood was a small town by Los Angeles, not yet crowned the "motion picture capital of the worls". In the 1920s, movies exploded onto the public consciousness. The 1920s truly was the golden age with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks being elevated to the status of icons. It was said that Chaplin was “known by name and sight to more of his contemporaries in all the lands than any man who has ever lived.” Royalty from Europe would travel across the Atlantic to see the stars and sometimes land a bit part in a movie.

Gloria Swanson's jewel encrusted fan


In a decade of dizzying statistics, movies set the pace. By mid-decade, movie production ranked at the nation’s fourth largest industry, raking in annual receipts of $2 billion and churning out an average 700 films per year. At the time, 40 million people flocked to the theater each week. By decade’s end, that number would reach 100 million – a staggering amount considering the nation’s entire population stood at 122 million!

view of "the Golden Age of Hollywood" area of exhibit

The movies were a unifying event for us. Everyone, no matter their status, saw the same films, copied the dress or hairstyles of the stars, and bought the same fan magazines to learn of the latest celebrity gossip. The humblest of women would have the “doormen tip their hats, and a maid curtsies to her in the ladies’ washroom … Romantic music gives her a pleasant sensation of tingling … and on this music, as on a mildly erotic bridge, she can let her fancies slip through the darkened atmosphere to the screen, where they drift in rhapsodic amours with handsome stars.”

These “amours” unnerved many who questioned the morality expressed in scenes of scantily clothed women, sensually kissing the leading man. Under pressure, Hollywood hired Will H. Hays, a former Postmaster-General, to clean up the industry and the Hays Code was born. “Morals clauses” were inserted into stars’ contracts and “any licentious or suggestive nudity,” “indecent or undue exposure,” “illegal drugs,” and “excessive and lustful kissing” was prohibited in the movies. The Code dictated standards for the next four decades, meaning movie-goers saw married couples wearing nothing more revealing than nightgowns or pajamas and each sleeping in separate twin beds. Things certainly have changed.