History of the World According to the Movies: Part 57 – 1920s America

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You may realize that a lot of the movies I have pictures for related to the 20th century thus far are screen adaptations from literature. However, I think Baz Luhrman’s 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the title character pretty much sums up the decadence of 1920s America among the upper class though with the Jay-Z music aside. Still, Luhrman is absolutely spot on with the glitziness and decadence of the era that has shaped much of our perception with its exquisite Art Deco set design. Yet, Leo’s Gatsby is a tragic hero in an age of lavish parties and lifestyles of excess who was driven to make his fortune on an idealized but unattainable dream which eventually costs him dearly and through illegal means. Despite that he managed to rise from poverty to great wealth, he dedicated his endless talent and ambition to become part of a society that cared nothing for him. No wonder they make us read the book in high school though I have much more appreciation for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work now than I did back in the day.

After World War I and Spanish flu, the 1920s was a time of great change with people embracing a new modernism and casting away the old fashioned trappings of 19th century life for good. Film had become the new artistic medium with the great silent films made all over the world. Jazz and blues have become all the rage in music with new dances like the Charleston, the Shimmy, the Tango, the Baltimore Buzz, and the Black Bottom. Yet, in movies, this is seen as the decade of parties, prosperity, and hedonism. It was the time of the flapper, a 1920s party girl who liked to drink, smoke, spoke in slang and swearing, had sex where and whenever she wanted, and enjoying other delights the Roaring Twenties had to offer. She had short bobbed hair tucked under her swanky cloche hat, wore knee length skirts and short and loose low-waisted evening gowns with turned up silk-stockings, and covered her face with powder and rouge. And the men didn’t look too badly either with their great colorful tailored suits capped with an array of hats. Gangsters especially had fashion sense and style. It was a decade of rebellion and tension whether it was Prohibition in the US that contributed to organized crime and violence or economic problems contributing to the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany. You also see a lot of cool cars on the road not just limited to the Ford Model T and a lot of electric powered labor saving devices we associate with middle-class living (though many people in even the industrialized world wouldn’t have much access to it.) If you think the 1960s were a radical decade, the 1920s gives that era stiff competition yet with much more glamor and much more honest rebellious hedonism.

1920s America is an excited period in movie history which depicts scenes of parties, bootleg gin, jazz, lively dancing, and flappers in a gorgeous Art Deco interiors and architecture. Of course, this is the decade when US women got the right to vote though this didn’t necessarily mean that women though unfortunately the notion that women should be housewives once they got married remained a popular notion of the day though some women did try getting around it or having some fulfillment in their lives (though many had their choices limited just due to plain old socioeconomics). African Americans also had it better since this the time of the Harlem Renaissance with authors like Zora Neal Hurston and Langston Hughes, jazz artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and intellectuals like W. E. B. DuBois who helped plant the seeds of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, it was a time when blackface was common in the entertainment industry, racial segregation was a fact of life, the Klu Klux Klan was a major organization with over 5 million members and had a 50,000 march in Washington D. C., and lynchings and hate crimes were still an all too common occurrence nationwide (especially in the South). It was a time of Prohibition when alcohol was illegal and thus rebellion against the 18th Amendment became common and cool, yet led to organized crime and violence. Yet, it was a time of the Scopes Monkey trial and religious fundamentalism. Finally, it was a time of big business and prosperity, but laissez-faire politics would make an unpredictable and unregulated stock market with high-risk practices like buying on margin which would lead to the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 and put an end to the Roaring Twenties for good. Of course, there are plenty of things movies in America during the 1920s get wrong which I shall list with key precision.

Sports:

The NFL in the1920s had an annual college draft. (The ideal of an annual college draft was proposed to the NFL in 1935 and wasn’t put into effect until 1936. Leatherheads is a whole decade off on this and probably should’ve taken place in the 1930s since its plot revolves around this.)

Lou Gehrig hit a home run through a window of the Columbia University athletic building. (The athletic building is nowhere near Columbia’s baseball field. Ironically, while Lou Gehrig did attend Columbia on a football scholarship, but dropped out after a couple of years when he went to play for the Yankees.)

The “Hail Mary” pass was a 1920s football term for a long last-second pass down field. (It wasn’t coined until after the Dallas Cowboys beat the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game in 1975. In some ways a “Hail Mary” is a newer term than “the Immaculate Reception” which was something only people raised in Steeler country would understand. It’s hard to explain.)

The NFL league president in the 1920s was appointed by Congress. (The NFL is a private corporation and has never had a league president appointed by Congress. Though the NFL did have a president at this time named Joe Carr, he was probably appointed by a board of directors just like every NFL president since. Also, he wouldn’t have had the power to deal with the media as he did in Leatherheads.)

Archibald “Moonlight” Graham played his lone game at the end of the 1922 baseball season. (He played his only game in June of 1905. Yet, like his Burt Lancaster portrayal in Field of Dreams, he actually did go on to be a doctor and practiced in Chisholm, Minnesota {but he was actually born in Fayetteville, North Carolina}. Oh, and he died in 1965 not 1972. Not to mention, he batted left-handed not right handed.)

Pitcher Shoeless Joe Jackson batted right-handed and threw left-handed. (He batted left-handed and threw right-handed.)

One of the banned players of the 1919 Chicago White Sox was a catcher. (None of the three catchers of the 1919 White Sox were among the eight players banned from that team.)

Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees because Red Sox owner Harry Frazee’s latest Broadway offering had flopped. (This is a popular myth but it’s really not the case. The real story according to Imdb is: “the sale came about due to the fact that Frazee hadn’t been hand-picked by American League president Ban Johnson to own a team, hence, Frazee was unwilling to do Johnson’s bidding. When Carl Mays jumped the Red Sox, Frazee sold him to the Yankees, ignoring Johnson’s order to suspend Mays. Meanwhile, Ruth was out of control, repeatedly breaking curfew, and jumping the team several times. The final straw came when Ruth was a no-show for the final game of the 1919 season, then held out for $20,000, despite the fact that Frazee had given Ruth bonuses. With the White Sox’ reputation in tatters following the Black Sox Scandal, and Johnson pressuring the Cleveland Indians, the Detroit Tigers, the Philadelphia Athletics, the St. Louis Browns, and the Washington Senators not to deal with Frazee, Frazee had little choice but to deal with the Yankees.”)

Lou Gehrig hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium during the 1925 season. (Actually this isn’t true since no player has done this.)

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth were enemies from the start. (They were actually good friends until after Lou married Eleanor Twitchell in 1933.)

Babe Ruth and his first wife Helen divorced after Babe was sold to the Yankees. (Actually they never divorced since they were both Roman Catholics but they did separate by then. In fact, Babe didn’t marry his second wife Claire {who he met at a Yankees vs. Senators game} until a few months after Helen died in a house fire.)

Babe Ruth hit a home run at his first bat in the majors. (He didn’t because he was primarily a pitcher and rarely batted. In fact, he didn’t hit his first home run until his second season.)

Claire Ruth was Babe’s only wife. (She was his second, Helen was his first.)

William Randolph Hearst:

William Randolph Hearst shot movie producer Thomas H. Ince in the head by mistake on the former’s Oneida yacht in 1924 during the latter’s 42nd birthday. (His autopsies indicated he suffered a heart attack of indigestion on there. Still, he was taken ashore by water taxi accompanied by Dr. Charles Goodman and died at a San Diego hotel two days later. Yet, there were rumors that Hearst shot him which is probably bullshit but it was the subject of a lot of rumors.)

Charlie Chaplin:

Charlie Chaplin divorced his first wife Mildred Harris after he found out that she lied to him about a miscarriage. (She did lie to him about being pregnant to get Chaplin to marry her but they did stay together when he found the truth. However, Harris was pregnant to Chaplin a month or two after their wedding but the baby survived just three days. Chaplin and Harris divorced the following year.)

Charlie Chaplin had an affair with Marion Davies. (While there have been rumors, there’s no evidence they had. Also, a lot of Chaplin’s love interests were much younger than he was and his first two wives were both under 18. I think it’s more likely him and Davies were just friends. Besides, Chaplin’s sex life had gotten him into quite a bit of trouble during his life and 1924 was the year he knocked up Lita Grey who was about 16. Not to mention, unlike in Cat’s Meow, Chaplin wasn’t on the Oneida during the Thomas Ince incident but did visit him afterwards and attended his funeral, according to his autobiography. Still, we’re not sure how much of Cat’s Meow is accurate because there’s not much evidence to support such events depicted.)

Harry Houdini:

In 1926, Harry Houdini died of a ruptured appendix during his first attempt to escape from the Chinese Water Torture Cell. (This is how Houdini died in the Tony Curtis film, which does a terrible job telling the guy’s life story. For one, Houdini had developed his water torture escape 14 years before his death and performed it hundreds of times. Second, while he did die of a ruptured appendix it was during his 1926 tour and took much longer. In Montreal, he exhibited his strength by letting a medical student strike him in the abdomen. Yet, the blows came before Houdini could prepare himself and his appendix was ruptured. However, he fiercely disregarded his own physical ailments {didn’t seek medical attention} but continued the tour for 9 days until he collapsed and subsequently died of peritonitis in a Detroit hospital on Halloween of 1926.) So Houdini’s death had less to do with his escape hijinks he’s so famous for and more to do with him having a severe medical complaint and refusing to seek proper medical attention. No dark forces here.)

Harry Houdini was alive in 1928. (He died in 1926.)

Gypsy Rose Lee:

Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc had the ultimate stage mother. (Yes, their mother was one to the max. Yet, Gypsy leaves out that Rose Hovick had a violent temper, ran a lesbian boarding house, and might’ve shot her lover dead for making a pass at Gypsy that was covered up as a suicide. She never stopped demanding money from either of her daughters.)

Cole Porter:

Cole Porter’s original version of “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” was written in the 1920s contained nothing objectionable by today’s standards. (Allow me to show you a sample from the original lyrics in the first chorus: “Chinks do it, Japs do it, up in Lapland little Laps do it…”. You could see why recent renditions of the song don’t include this. Also, contrary to Midnight in Paris, it was written in the 1940s.)

“Let’s Misbehave” was a popular song in 1922. (Cole Porter wrote it in 1927.)

Linda Lee was a young woman when she met Cole Porter in 1919. (Contrary to Night and Day, her name was Linda Lee Thomas who was a 36 years old divorcee when she met Cole in Paris during 1919 who was widely considered one of the world’s most beautiful women. Cole was about 28 at the time. Their relationship was highly intimate but never romantic since Linda didn’t desire sex after an abusive first marriage and Porter was gay {and she knew what she was getting into}. Still, she fiercely supported his musical career and never left him in the 1920s. They were briefly estranged in 1937 though but it was over her wanting him to give up Hollywood and return to Broadway. Also, they spent a lot of the 1920s traveling Europe.)

Cole Porter was straight. (Uh, unlike his Cary Grant portrayal in Night and Day {though Grant batted on both teams if you know what I mean}, Cole Porter liked men. You hear me, all you old people out here who listen to his music, he was gay and by “gay” I don’t mean happy either.)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

FDR walked to the podium on crutches when he addressed the 1924 Democratic Convention. (He didn’t walk on crutches. Rather, he was supported by his son James on one side and he supported himself with a cane with the on the other. To the observer, this gave more of an appearance of walking.)

FDR’s crutches were so short that he’d have to lean over and use them to walk on all fours. (No competent orthopedist would ever give FDR crutches that were that short but Ralph Bellamy does this in Sunrise at Campobello. According to Imdb: “Crutches should be long enough so that the user can stand up straight, support his weight on them and propel himself forward with his shoulder muscles.”)

FDR was faithful to Eleanor Roosevelt who was undeniably straight. (Actually FDR and Eleanor weren’t sleeping together by the time FDR contracted polio mostly because Eleanor discovered him having an affair with her social secretary Lucy Mercer. He dumped her and she married someone else, but they did get back together without Eleanor’s knowledge since Lucy was with him when he died. He’s also said to have two other mistresses such as his private secretary Missy LeHand and Daisy Suckley who gave him Fala. Their marriage was actually more of a political partnership than anything resembling an intimate relationship between husband and wife. Despite giving birth to six kids, Eleanor is said to have disliked sex {at least with him} which may lead some to speculate whether she was gay for she did develop rather close relationships with a few female friends {she was even plagued by gay rumors as First Lady}. )

FDR’s polio brought him and Eleanor closer together. (It actually drove them further apart.)

FDR and Eleanor spent a lot of time together after he contracted polio. (They actually spent a lot more time apart in their own lives. They weren’t a conventionally married couple. In fact, FDR’s polio led Eleanor to involve herself more in Democratic politics.)

Charles Lindbergh:

Charles Lindbergh was an upstanding American hero and role model. (Despite the fact that he believed in eugenics, was a Nazi sympathizer before Pearl Harbor, and fathered thirteen children with three or four different women. Kind of puts him in competition of today’s athletes in the anti-role model department despite being played by Jimmy Stewart.)

Charles Lindbergh was a Colonel in the National Guard during his famous flight from New York to Paris. (He was a Captain. He would be promoted to Colonel after he returned.)

Robert Stroud:

Robert Stroud was a vicious killer but his behavior improved once he got into ornithology. (Contemporary inmates resented Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of the guy in Birdman of Alcatraz and said Stroud was far more sinister and unpleasant than he was in the film. Oh, and one of the reasons why he was sent to Alcatraz was that some of the equipment Stroud had requested for his Leavenworth lab was being used as a home made distillery. Also, he was diagnosed as a psychopath during his time at Alcatraz.)

Rudolph Valentino:

Rudolph Valentino worked as a boxer and gigg0lo. (Contrary to Valentino, he was neither.)

Rudolph Valentino’s early death was caused by an alcohol perforated ulcer. (Contrary to Valentino, the ulcer was caused by stress and his refusal to see a doctor, not booze. Also, he was said to have suffered from peritonitis and other health problems.)

Eugene Allen:

Eugene Allen’s mother was raped by a plantation owner who shot his dad dead. (Contrary to The Butler, there’s nothing to suggest that Eugene’s parents ended up like this. Also, he grew up in Virginia, not Georgia. Still, unlike his film expy Cecil Gaines, Eugene probably had a pretty mundane childhood you’d usually expect of a black kid living in the Jim Crow Era.)

The Matewan Massacre:

The 1921 Matewan Massacre was an isolated incident in 1920s West Virginia. (It was actually part of a prolonged struggle for unionization of West Virginia miners which lasted for decades since the state was dominated with people who were dominated by the special interests in the coal companies that even the authority of sympathetic local officials was often overridden. In 1907, the state experienced the worst coal mine disaster in US history and by 1921 mine safety laws were notoriously unenforced, child labor laws were weak and systematically ignored including educational requirements, coal mine operators didn’t have to pay compensation for workplace injuries, and so on. By this time in history, West Virginia had the highest death rate of any coal mining state with the proportion of miners dying in accidents exceeding that of any European country.)

The Matewan coal mining community needed outside influence to unionize. (They didn’t for the miners had been struggling to form a union for quite some time.)

The Scopes Monkey Trial:

John T. Scopes was engaged to a minister’s daughter. (He wasn’t nor did he have a girlfriend. The Browns in Inherit the Wind were fictional characters with no real-life counterparts. Also, he’d eventually marry a Catholic and convert.)

John T. Scopes’ teaching of evolution was frowned upon in the community where he taught. (Scopes’ trial wasn’t brought forth by some crazy Bible-thumping minister who didn’t want him to date his daughter. In fact, he wasn’t even arrested nor did he issue a plea for empathy. The town of Dayton actually persuaded Scopes to teach the theory of evolution since it was suffering an economic slump after Tennessee had banned such subject from the curriculum. Though initially reluctant, Scopes was planned to be indicted under the ban so the town could have a big publicity trial to bring in the tourists {so they weren’t hostile to people who came there to see the trial}. Also, attorney Clarence Darrow publicly announced he’d defend anyone arrested for teaching Evolution before the trial actually happened and the case was financed by the ACLU who wanted someone to challenge the constitutionality of the Tennessee evolution ban. The plan worked perfectly.)

William Jennings Bryan didn’t offer to pay Scopes fine if he was convicted. (Bryan actually did do this.)

William Jennings Bryan died of a heart attack right after the Scopes Monkey Trial collapsing at mid-speech. (He actually died five days later in his sleep. And, no, he didn’t collapse at mid-speech or had to be dragged out the courtroom while strangely speaking on being inaugurated as President.)

There were no Christian speakers who endorsed evolution during the Scopes Monkey Trial. (There were plenty that said Christians could believe in Evolution, too {a view endorsed by Darwin himself so would Scopes who’d later convert to Catholicism when he got married}, and such arguments are in the original transcripts. But such complexity beyond “us vs. them” simple message is a little inconvenient for Inherit the Wind {though it was intended as a criticism of McCarthyism so there’s not much middle ground there compared to the debate of creationism vs. evolution debate}. Other than what I listed, the trial went as much as it did in the play and later film.)

John T. Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution. (He claimed that he was teaching evolution in his school but nobody could prove that he actually taught it. Still, he did use a textbook with evolution in it, but all science teachers did at the time, even in Tennessee.)

The evolution ban was enforced in Tennessee. (Unlike in Inherit the Wind, Scopes was the only person tried under the law. Despite that the law against teaching evolution would remain in the books for at least over a decade, it was seldom enforced to the point where even college professors in the state taught it without further incident.)

William Jennings Bryan was totally and willfully ignorant of Darwin’s book and evolution in general. (In the actual case, he quoted from Darwin’s book in memory though completely out of context but definitely not of total ignorance.)

The 1925 Serum Run to Nome:

Balto was a gray wolfdog hybrid. (He was a trained purebred Siberian husky {or Malamute} and was mostly black with a white belly and front legs. You can actually see him in the Cleveland Museum of National History. Also, he was actually born in a kennel owned by the famous musher Leonhard Seppala and wasn’t a conceived during a random hookup between a Siberian husky and a wild white wolf. The 1995 Balto children’s cartoon lied. Besides if Balto was a wolfdog that spent most of his life in the wild, he probably wouldn’t have been seen as a viable sled dog, let alone be able to reproduce if domesticated.)

The serum run to Nome, Alaska was a race with Balto being the leader of the first team to carry the medicine to Nome in which he had to travel the longest and most hazardous distance. (Actually the 1925 serum run depicted in Balto was a relay. Balto was the leader of the last team to carry the medicine to Nome. The longest and most hazardous distance was traveled by the team led by Togo whose accomplishments went greatly under appreciated in the cartoon. Many mushers today would consider Togo the real hero of the sled run who actually did have an amazing story worth making into a children’s cartoon. Even his owner thought Togo was neglected by the press commenting in dismay, “it was almost more than I could bear when the newspaper dog Balto received a statue for his ‘glorious achievements'”. Still, he and Balto had the same owner, though Balto was pulled by one of Seppala’s workers.)

During the 1925 Serum Run to Nome, Balto took over the sled run once the musher was incapacitated. (No mushers were incapacitated during the sled run and the medicine was never driven by dogs alone. God almighty, is it just me who thinks Balto is kind of fucked up, here?)

After the 1925 Serum Run to Nome, Balto managed to father a litter of pups. (Balto actually had been neutered at a young age which would make his pups in the sequels be impossible to exist. What actually happened to Balto is pretty grim. Since he was never destined for stardom in the breeding shed, Balto was relegated to being neglected on the vaudeville circuit with his team. Balto and his fellow teammates would later be sold to the company who sponsored his tour. This led to the dogs being chained in a small area in a novelty and freak show museum in Los Angeles. That is, until a Cleveland businessman named George Kimble discovered to his shock how badly these animals and thus worked with a local newspaper to bring Balto and his six companions to his hometown. Balto and his fellow teammates would receive a hero’s welcome in 1927 and spent the rest of their lives in Cleveland’s Brookside Zoo. Of course, this would’ve made a terrible sequel to the 1995 kiddie cartoon.)

Bush planes in 1920s Alaska were used in the 1925 Serum Run to Nome. (Bush planes in the 1920s weren’t used for deliveries, medicine, or mail. Rather they were used for surveys and firefighting and were popularized after World War II. Also, bush planes at this time were concentrated in Canada and weren’t used commercially in Alaska until the 1940s.)

Miscellaneous:

The FRC and the Office of Censorship were around in 1925. (The FRC was founded in 1926 {soon to become the FCC in the 1930s} while the Office of Censor was established shortly after Pearl Harbor in 1941.)

Auto entrepreneur and later horse owner Charles S. Howard’s son Frankie, was a fan of Flash Gordon comics. (This is shown in Seabiscuit but it’s wrong. His son died in 1926 when Flash Gordon came out in 1934. Also, Frankie died in a truck accident at 15 not 10 as the film implies. Not to mention, the elder Howard had three other sons besides him. Not only that, but his second wife Marcela was his daughter-in-law’s older sister. So yeah, he became a brother-in-law to one of his sons.)

The Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building were under construction in 1922. (The Chrysler Building’s construction began in 1928. The Empire State Building’s construction began in 1930.)

The Charleston was a popular dance in 1922. (It would originate in 1923 for a Broadway show and would gain popularity in mid-1926.)

Dr. Spock’s book on childcare came out in 1929. (It was published in 1939.)

It wasn’t unusual for American jails to have black prison matrons. (There’s no way an African-American in 1920s America would’ve been allowed to hold a position of authority over white people. Yet, Queen Latifah plays one in Chicago.)

New York City was a town filled with skyscrapers in the 1920s. (The recent Great Gatsby adaptation exaggerates the number of skyscrapers actually in New York by this time.)

Julius W. “Nicky” Arnstein was Fanny Brice’s first husband. (He was actually her second. Still, he was a professional gambler and con artist as well as already married when Brice met him. He served two prison sentences during their relationship and it was for swindling as well as conspiracy to carry stolen Wall Street securities {worth $5 million} into the District of Columbia, not for embezzlement. He was also kind of a jerk who disappeared from Brice’s life {as well as their kids’ lives who aren’t mentioned in the movie} after his 1927 release. And though Funny Girl said that Arnstein turned to crime because his pride wouldn’t allow him to live off of Fanny, in reality he eagerly sponged off her even before their marriage. And instead of turning himself in as in the movie, he actually went into hiding and didn’t plead guilty when caught. He even used his wife’s money to fight the charges. As for Fanny herself, she didn’t come of modest means for her parents were relatively well-off saloon owners.)

Illinois had its first woman executed I the 1920s. (The first time Illinois executed a woman was in 1845.)

The Teapot Dome scandal was made public in January of 1922. (It was made public in latter half of 1923.)

“Rhapsody in Blue” was a hit in 1922. (George Gershwin wrote it in 1924.)

It wasn’t unusual to see a black rich guy have a white chauffeur at this time. (Well, this was unusual but F. Scott Fitzgerald included such instance in The Great Gatsby so it’s not that it didn’t happen.)

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One response to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 57 – 1920s America

  1. Wow, what an era! The Scopes Monkey Trial was definitely not what I thought it was, nor was Balto’s saga. The lyrics from Cole Porter’s song were pretty bad!

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