History of the World According to the Movies: Part 51 – America at the Turn of the Century


Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane has been deemed as the best movie of all time by many film organizations like the American Film Institute. It’s thinly veiled story about William Randolph Hearst who managed to use his media savvy to get the US into a war with Spain with “Remember the Maine.” Yet, this movie also talks about the rising presence in the mass media in America about the turn of the century which men like Kane and Hearst helped engineer. While I may not think it’s the best movie of all time, I do agree that it’s a movie of great cinematic and historical value which should’ve received more contemporary recognition than it got.

My last part of the series regarding history in the movies will pertain to the 20th century since much of 21st history is too recent for everyone to agree upon since we live in a world of political bias and events of our recent past are very prone to opinionated judgements which may or may not be accurate depending on who you believe. Sometimes relatively recent history isn’t actually considered history at all but may fall around the line of current events since many of the participants are still alive, which is helpful for historians in some respect but sometimes they’d prefer talking about someone who is dead since they can’t really talk back. There may have been certain events that happened within the last 20 years or so but such incidences aren’t times that historians can adequately judge at the moment. Besides, I need to stop somewhere.

The 20th century was an even more transformative time than the one that preceded it with massive changes taking place within the span of generations and decades. In 1900, there were barely any cars on the street and by 1999, much of the western world starting to head toward the information age. Whatever progress is made in any field during the 19th century, would practically be on steroids in the 20th and then some ranging with everything from electricity, fashion, entertainment, to civil rights. Yet, the 20th century brought on its share of new challenges, new problems, and compelled us to redefine our place in the world as in a global village. Not to mention, the 20th century would be fraught by global conflicts, worldwide economic crises, pandemics, genocide, cultural unrest, and other things. Of course, these incidences are nothing new at all and have happened a lot in the past, but 20th century history implies that they are. Yet, the difference is that 20th century events in history are more likely to be recorded and depicted right where they happened and when thanks to the accessibility of information at this time. Events that occurred earlier are more likely to be forgotten until several years later. Not to mention, advances in communication have managed to make manipulating history much harder to do in many cases, though it is possible for many to use the media in their favor. But let’s say that Egyptian Pharaohs had a much easier time toppling monuments of their predecessor and expunge them from records than most of our dictators would today, since camera images can provide plenty of damning evidence than stone hieroglyphs.

Of course, I can’t begin my blog series on movies set in the 20th century until I discuss movie history in the United States around the turn of the century between the end of the American Civil War and US entry into World War I in 1917. This was a time of much excitement and contradiction. It was a time of progressive politics, science and technological innovation, expansionism, and increasing prestige. Yet, this is a time of rampant ethnic and racial discrimination, political corruption, boom and bust economic cycles, and widening divisions between the rich and poor. You have new inventions like phonographs, telephones, airplanes, and film. You have great waves of immigration from all over the world at this time seeking a new life in this country, yet at this time the American Dream has never been so far to reach due to discrimination, limited educational opportunities, child labor, monopolies, and political opposition of unionization. In 1890, the top 1% of Americans possessed more wealth than the poorest 99% combined, which is a reason why much of this period is called the Gilded Age. Still, you have plenty of movies set in this era tell how great this time was but it wasn’t. Nevertheless, there are plenty of inaccuracies I shall list accordingly.

The Statue of Liberty:

The Statue of Liberty was originally green like it is now. (It was originally brown and it took over 35 years for it to change color.)

The Statue of Liberty originally had a golden torch. (The gold leaf covered torch was installed in 1986. The original torch had portholes where it was illuminated from within.)


Pinkerton Detective James McPharlan’s initial contact with the Molly Maguires was at Port Clinton’s Emerald House. (It was at the Sheridan House in nearby Pottsville, Pennsylvania.)

Jack Kehoe brought Detective McPharlan into the Molly Maguires. (It was “Muff” Lawler who did since he was the master of the group’s membership. Of course, Kehoe is played by Sean Connery in The Molly Maguires. Still, Kehoe was seen by the Pinkertons as the master conspirator in the Molly Maguires and was seen by Allen Pinkerton as a diabolical figure. Still, in the Molly Maguires there was plenty of private and workplace squabbles, ethnic resentment, and class grievances that gave much rise to the violence in the coal patches of Western Pennsylvania. The movie about them is more about the immigrant experience.)

James McPharlan’s relationship with Mary Raines was a tragic love story. (The woman McPharlan courted was Mary Ann Higgins who was a sister-in-law to one of the Molly Maguires, Jimmy Kerrigan. However, it was a romance that furthered the investigation into the group and nothing more.)


Alexander Graham Bell:

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in his youth. (It was invented by Antonio Meucci in 1860 and Johann Phillip Reis in 1861 and both called it a “telephone.” Still, he invented a telephone called the Bell – telephone in the 1870s. Nevertheless, Bell would later invent a model for a wireless telephone called a Photophone, which would be precursor to fiber-optic communication. He also invented a metal detector and did experiments in hydrofoils and aeronautics.)

Alexander Graham Bell sent the first sound through a wire in the 1870s. (The first sound through a wire was made by Johann Phillip Reis in 1862.)

Mabel Hubbard fell for Alexander Graham Bell at first sight when she accidentally ran into him when he arrived to her family’s house. (Well, we’re not sure though he was definitely one of Mabel’s teachers and she was his favorite pupil. Still, they were a devoted couple until Alexander’s death in 1922.)

Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson were clean shaven men in the 1870s. (Both had beards.)

Alexander Graham Bell was a great humanitarian for the deaf. (Despite having a deaf wife and mother, he was a shitty guy to the deaf community {though he did think he was doing the right thing}. He was a big believer in eugenics {the idea that sterilizing poor and disabled people was rad idea} and wasn’t too thrilled with having deaf teachers or deaf people marrying each other. Not to mention, his ideas on teaching deaf people to read lips really didn’t help their quality of life. So yes, Bell was a real huge jerk.)

Nikola Tesla:

Nikola Tesla was an underrated inventor who was a crazy genius but was screwed by Thomas Edison. (Edison wasn’t a nice guy and did steal inventions from some people but you can’t blame all of Tesla’s failures on him though they did have an intense rivalry. When Tesla got bored of sane science his career totally bombed. Tesla’s attempts to build a death ray and the weather control machine or whatever else he was hoping to build just didn’t work. He may have done some important work in physics as well as been the first person to file a patent of a VTOL aircraft, but neither would actually be built decades later when the actual nuts-and-bolts engineering was being done by someone else. Yet, he’s seen as an awesome underrated scientist in whatever he’s in. Yet, Marconi did still Tesla’s patent for radio while Edison didn’t.)

Nikola Tesla succeeded at building a working death ray. (He didn’t but many of his ideas were used by later inventors and scientists.)

Thomas Edison:

Thomas Edison was a ruthless, violent man who crushed his foes by sending goons to burn down their labs and run them out of town. (Edison might’ve been ruthless and played dirty enough to order a disinformation against AC involving lobbying and killing animals. He’d even briefly switch his view on the death penalty and invent an electric chair if it meant making the other guy look bad. However, Edison would never have stooped so low as to burn his rivals’ labs and run them out of town. As for inventing the electric chair, he would live to regret it.)

Thomas Edison invented the electrical power transmission. (Actually Nikola Tesla did since he was the guy who advocated alternating current. Edison was on team direct current. From Imdb: “Edison insisted on powering his lights with direct current, which could only travel sort distances from the generators that produced it. Tesla used alternating current, which could be run through transformers to increase its voltage so it could be moved over long distances, then reduced in voltage again for home use. Tesla’s alternating current, not Edison’s direct current, quickly became the standard and is what we use today.”)

Thomas Edison was married once. (He was married twice. His wife depicted in Edison the Man only lived to be 30 and died in the 1880s. He also had three kids from each marriage.)

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. (He invented a light bulb that was more marketable. However, there were two other guys who have before him across the Atlantic Ocean.)

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg:

George Kellogg was a boozed-up vagrant who burned down his dad’s sanitarium. (He wasn’t though Dr. John Harvey Kellogg did adopt 42 children putting Angelina Jolie and Mia Farrow to shame. Oh, and George didn’t burn down his dad’s Battle Creek Sanitarium {though it did burn down in 1902 due to an accident but it had been rebuilt by the time The Road to Wellville is set which is in 1907}.)

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s sanitarium allowed mixed quarters among the sexes. (Men and women were segregated at his sanitarium.)

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg died attempting to demonstrate the high dive. (He actually peacefully died in his bed.)


Mark Twain:

Samuel Clemens was in Nevada before American Civil War. (He went there after the war started and his brief stint in the Confederate Army, partly to get out of the conflict. Nevertheless, he hated slavery which is well known.)

Samuel Clemens met Henry Huttleston Rogers who told the author he could avoid bankruptcy in his publishing company if he didn’t honor his overly generous contract to publish Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs. Clemens was willing to risk bankruptcy after seeing Grant dying and poverty stricken since the country owed him such a debt of gratitude. (Clemens’ company did publish Grant’s memoirs which were a huge success and eight years before he met Rogers. Still, like his 1944 biopic The Adventures of Mark Twain, Clemens would’ve risked bankruptcy anyway to get Grant’s memoirs published if he had to because he respected the man so much that he let Grant’s family have 75% of the royalties. However, publishing Grant’s memoirs wouldn’t have been seen as a financial risk because he was still well loved by the time of his death, especially among people who’ve actually known and served with him {which was a lot}. Not to mention, any publishing company would’ve wanted to get their hands on them. Still, Clemens’ business did go bankrupt but not because of Grant.)

Mark Twain wore his signature white suit while his wife Olivia was still alive. (He only started wearing it after he mourned his wife’s death in 1904, at which time he swore to only wear white for the rest of his life. However, knowing that his white suit is his signature look, this can be forgiven in any biopic of him.)

Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Jim were real people in Samuel Clemens’ childhood. (They’re fictional characters of Twain’s own creation but they were based on real people he knew when he was a kids. Still, their presence in his childhood is rather appropriate for his 1944 biopic even if those three were fictional creations. Still, at least Jim’s in it even though Twain’s hometown doesn’t include him.)

Samuel Clemens knew of his wife Olivia Langdon when he was still a river pilot on the Mississippi River. (They met in 1867 and before then he probably didn’t know she existed. Oh, and he didn’t meet her brother while he was still a river pilot. Yet, they did meet through her brother Charles and their father wasn’t really keen on the idea on their relationship. Interestingly, their first date was to a Charles Dickens reading and throughout their lives in Hartford, had Harriet Beecher Stowe as a next door neighbor.)

“Warm summer sun shine kindly here, Warm southern wind blow softly here, Green sod above, lie light, lie light – Good night, dear heart, Good night, good night,” was on Olivia Langdon Clemens’ grave. (It’s on Susy Clemens’ grave who died of spinal meningitis at twenty-four, which left her father Samuel Clemens heartbroken and her family devastated. Thirteen years later Mark Twain would later lose his youngest daughter Jean who drowned in a bathtub at twenty-nine following an heart attack triggered by epilepsy {this is widely believed but Jean did suffer from seizures throughout her life}.)


Molly Brown:

Molly Brown and her husband were never accepted into high Denver society until the Titanic sank. (Yes, they were even before then. Also, their Denver house was quite small with only one room having a smidgeon of red wall paper {unlike what The Unsinkable Molly Brown wants you to believe}. Yet, she did have another house called the Avoca right outside the city. Also, her parties were quite well attended. Not to mention, in 1912, she was known as “Maggie.”)

Molly and John Brown got back together after the sinking of the Titanic. (They didn’t though they did care and communicate with each other throughout their lives and his name was James Joseph Brown or “J. J. Brown.” Also, they had two kids absent from The Unsinkable Molly Brown {which gets everything wrong}. Also, she was never an orphan or an only child and she got married in a Leadville Catholic church, not at Brown’s house. Not to mention, The Unsinkable Molly Brown makes her look like a selfish immature bitch when she actually did a lot of philanthropy and activism, especially in the rights of women and workers, education, historic preservation, and others.)


George M. Cohan:

George M. Cohan was born on the 4th of July. (He wasn’t for he was born on July 3rd. His dad had him listed on the 4th of July out of patriotic fervor. Also, Josie was already two years old at George’s birth {in Yankee Doodle Dandy, she’s younger than him}.)

George M. Cohan received the Congressional Medal of Honor. (He was never in the military. However, he did receive the Congressional Gold Medal. Apparently the guys who made Yankee Doodle Dandy didn’t think people would know anything about the Congressional Gold Medal.)

Jerry Cohan was the last of the 4 Cohans other than George M. Cohan himself. (He actually died in 1917 while his wife Helen died in 1928. George’s sister Josie did 1916. Still, that deathbed scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy should’ve involved George with his mother which would’ve made much historical sense. Either that, or have Helen Cohan present at Jerry Cohan’s deathbed because she outlived her husband.)

George M. Cohan’s wife was named Mary. (Actually Mary Cohan is a fictional character. Cohan was actually married twice. First to a woman named Ethel Levey whom he divorced in 1907. His second was Agnes Mary Nolan but who knows what he called her. Unlike in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cohan also had four kids who all had careers in show biz. As for his looks, Cohan was a much better looking man than James Cagney who more or less resembled an elder Peter Sellers in his later years.)

Will Rogers:

Will Rogers was white. (He was of mixed race and just over 1/4 Cherokee. He also grew up as a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.)

Cole Porter:

Cole Porter’s Yale “Bull Dog” song was instantly embraced as Yale’s anthem in 1914. (Actually “Bull Dog” is a fraternity smoking song and Cole Porter’s song for Yale was “Bingo! Eli Yale.” Also, he didn’t pay his way through college playing in a pit band or work at a sheet music store. Nor did he drop out of Yale either for he actually graduated. He actually switched from Harvard Law to its music school. Oh, and though he did serve in the French Army during World War I, he didn’t see combat nor was he ever injured. And unlike what Night and Day implies, Monty Woolley wasn’t his grizzled professor, he was an upperclassmen whom Cole knew socially and ended up becoming an actor {though he probably appeared as himself for he was an old grizzled bearded dude at the time}. Still, like Porter, Woolley was also gay.)

Cole Porter’s family was so happy when he decided to become a musician and quit law school. (Cole’s family wasn’t happy at all with his decision to get into music that on one occasion his mother and grandfather didn’t speak to each other or to Cole for several months. He and his grandfather never reconciled.)

The Progressive Era:

Theodore Roosevelt:

Theodore Roosevelt was nearly assassinated during his presidential campaign in 1904. (The attempt on his life was made in 1912, when he was a former president running as a candidate of the Progressive Party. Though the bullet hit him which resulted in him seeping blood, he delivered his speech as planned for a whole 90 minutes and didn’t seek medical attention until he finished. Yes, he was a medical marvel. Still, I wonder why there’s no Hollywood biopic of this man.)

Teddy Roosevelt had a deep, resonant, and bombastic voice. (His recording reveals him with a high pitched upper class New Yorker voice. However, he sounded like this because he typically used a high pitched voice that carries better in an outdoor venue, grew up with respiratory diseases like asthma, and came from an aristocratic family. Most Teddy Roosevelt portrayals sound nothing like the guy did in real life. Also, Hollywood tends to portrays him as a much older man despite the fact that he was only 42 when he became president {making him the youngest US president ever} and didn’t live past 60.)

Theodore Roosevelt was perfectly fine being called “Teddy.” (He hated being called “Teddy” since it was what his first wife Alice called him who ended up tragically dying in childbirth on the same day as his mother and in the same house. He actually preferred to be called “T. R.” Not to mention, he pronounced the name “Roosevelt” with the first part rhyming with “ruse.”)

Charles Curtis served as Vice President under Theodore Roosevelt. (He was vice-president under Herbert Hoover from 1929-1933, not under Teddy Roosevelt. In fact, in 1904, Roosevelt had no vice president since he had assumed the office after the McKinley assassination in the days before presidents in his position usually selected one. His eventual Vice-President was Charles Fairbanks, a senator from Indiana. Still, Ragtime should get its facts straight.)

Harry Houdini:

Harry Houdini jumped in the Detroit River locked in a trunk with the water turned into thick ice as well as had to conduct an excruciating underwater search for a hole in the ice directed by his dead mother’s voice. (Unlike what the movie Houdini says, while Houdini did jump in the Detroit River from Detroit’s Belle Isle Bridge, he was actually fettered in manacles and two sets of handcuffs. Of course, there were later embellishments which hadn’t been verified as depicted in the Tony Curtis film. However, hole in the ice or not, Houdini wasn’t guided by his dead mother’s voice because he performed the trick in November 27, 1906. At that time his mother was still alive.)

Harry Houdini’s mother died the same day as his Detroit River jump. (No, his mother didn’t die that day. Rather she died 7 years later but she was unquestionably the greatest loss of his life that he spent the rest of his life seeking authentic spiritual contact with her.)

Harry Houdini was an enterologist. (He was actually an escape artist contrary to the Tony Curtis film and his “Metamorphosis” trick with his wife actually had him freed and her take his place.)

Harry Houdini’s wife Bess always nagged him into seeking a normal day job a at a lock factory. (Actually their marriage was actually more boring that it was in the Tony Curtis film. Unlike most performers, Houdini had almost no problems reconciling love with his career or marriage and show business because Bess was his assistant and designed his costumes. Still, Bess may not have been able to have kids and there’s the fact that Harry’s family wouldn’t allow her to be interred with him after she died since she was raised Catholic and Harry was Jewish. Not to mention, Houdini’s work as an escape artist gave him more fame and fortune than he would’ve ever had.)

Harry Houdini’s work as an escape artist was inspired by a supernatural voice telling him to seek death at the price of fame. (Sorry, but the Tony Curtis movie has it wrong. His work as an escape artists was inspired by his psychological conflicts and teemed with elements of perverse anxieties like exhibitionism, mutilation, entrapment, insanity, and death. He was also a man who had been driven to escape his impoverished Jewish childhood, which is totally ignored in the film.)

All of Harry Houdini’s tricks were aided by a strange and hypnotic supernatural power. (He actually developed many of his acts by himself with modifications along the way. Besides, he performed many of his acts hundreds of times. Also, his escape acts took hours not minutes. Still, he was around at a time when there wasn’t a lot of venues for entertainment. Still, while Houdini did try to make a “scientific” search for the supernatural, he and his wife had briefly worked as sham mediums and they knew the tricks of the trade. He also devoted considerable energy to unmasking spiritualist charlatans with all the drama and publicity at his command, including one in which he duplicated all the effects of spirit photographs for all to see when Scientific American offered prizes for an authentic one under scientific conditions.)


Small town America, in the past, was populated by people who were more innocent and virtuous than we are today. (Ever hear of lynchings?)

Lynchings only took place in the South. (Lynchings took place nationwide, but the South was the lynching capital of the country. It was also an event in the South where the white people would have picnics and bring their kids, yeah really. And the victims weren’t always innocent black men either as westerns were quick to point out, especially older westerns.)

More immigrants came to the US around the turn of the century than ever in American history. (Unless you are referring to European immigration, then no. Actually there have been more people coming to this country in the present day than there has ever been before thanks to the dropped quotas and bans on non-white immigrants, and even those weren’t effective. The reason why it’s mostly focused on this time period is because most Americans are descended from the people who came at the time around my parents’ generation.)

Charles Ossining invented a cola containing cocaine in the 1910s. (Coca-Cola originally had substantial quantities of cocaine until between 1891 and 1903. By the 1910s, it had virtually none due to the fact that cocaine distribution was already regulated by the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of You914.)

The US economy boomed during this time. (Well, the economy grew but prosperity wasn’t enjoyed by everyone since this is a time of great economic and social inequality. Also, just because the US economy was big doesn’t mean it was stable, which it wasn’t and had its own share of disasters. You have the Black Friday panic on September 29, 1869, a day when the whole US economy was taken down by two speculators named James Fisk and Jay Gould whose efforts {made possible by a government tip off} to corner the gold market leading to a 30% increase in gold prices followed by large plummet when the federal government stepped in to sell some of their own holdings causing many investors to lose fortunes. You have the Panic of 1873 caused by the closing of a large and respected bank that helped the government finance during the US Civil War and the Northern Pacific Railroad called the Jay Cooke & Company leading European investors to call in their loans to American companies and the New York Stock Exchange shutting its doors for 10 days. Then you have 40% of American farmers losing their farms with many becoming tenants on land they formerly owned during the 1880s. Those who mortgaged to railroad companies found themselves foreclosed and homeless. Finally, there’s the Panic of 1893 caused by the bankruptcy of the National Cordage Company that tried to corner the rope market and was the most actively traded company on the NYSE at that point. This resulted in the failure of more than 500 banks and the closing of 15,000 businesses. Oh, it also led to a run in US gold reserves that backed the dollar that led to President Grover Cleveland having to borrow $65 million in gold from J. P. Morgan. Yet, do you hear about any of these financial disasters in movies? Not a chance.)

It was very possible for immigrants to have their surname change on a whim and without their consent. (This almost never happened unless at the immigrant’s request though this is a commonly believed myth. From Imdb: “Each immigrant had to have paperwork specifically saying their first and last name, and if something did not match, they were sent back to their home country to retrieve the correct paperwork.” Perhaps many immigrants changed their names since it would’ve been easier than having to go back to their home country to retrieve the correct paperwork.)

Immigrants at Ellis Island who were marked with an circled X were suspected as having small pox. (In history, a circled X was a sign for a mental illness, which would be entirely plausible in Vito Corleone’s case.)

One response to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 51 – America at the Turn of the Century

  1. I didn’t realize the economy was so up and down during this period. The Great Depression gets all of the attention. Certainly some big personalities during this era. Teddy Roosevelt was something else.

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