History of the World According to the Movies: Part 59 – Life in 1920s Europe

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No movie defines 1920s life in Paris like Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris in which Owen Wilson’s character meets 1920s luminaries in the city of lights and falls for artist model played by Marion Cotillard. Though it’s a romanticized portrayal, it sort of serves a purpose as the subject matter pertains to nostalgia. Yet, while everything may seem glamorous in Paris in that era, things weren’t much fun elsewhere in Europe.

Europe in the 1920s doesn’t appear much in movies for some reason, but that doesn’t mean that there was nothing going on at the time. Of course, Paris was a haven of culture and expatriate artists and authors like Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, as well as the home of Gertrude Stein. You also had the bohemian Bloomsbury group in Great Britain as well as Agatha Christie writing her mystery novels but there’s really not much happening there outside fiction. Yet, there are some places in Europe not having a fun time. For instance, Italy came under Fascism in 1922 under the forces of Benito Mussolini and his Blackshirts. Let’s just say living in Italy under Ill Duce was not a fun time, especially with Blackshirt thugs and secret police around. 1920s Germany was under the Weimar Republic which was of political corruption and instability, economic hardship {their whole currency collapse}, and the rise of political movements like Nazism, all of which would pave the way for the creation of Nazi Germany in 1933. However, 1920s Germany did experience great cultural growth in this period like cabaret culture which helped start Marlene Dietrich’s career, Dadaism, Bauhaus architecture, German Expressionism, and lots of writers and intellectuals. Nevertheless, while there aren’t a lot of movies set in 1920s Europe but I’ll list the historical inaccuracies nonetheless.

Weimar Germany:

Adolf Hitler was friends with a Jewish art dealer named Max Rothman during the 1920s. (There’s a movie about the whole thing but I’m sure Hitler didn’t have any Jewish friends at any point in his life that we know of. Still, anti-Semitism was rife in Europe during that time in history.)

Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian in the 1920s. (He didn’t become a vegetarian until 1931mostly due to health reasons.)

The NSDAP was around in in 1918. (It was known as the DAP then before Hitler changed the name to NSDAP in 1920. Still, we know this party as the Nazi Party which is just a rather violent political party at this point.)

During and immediately after World War I, Adolf Hitler sported his trademark “comb” mustache. (He actually had a traditional handlebar mustache at this time, yet he adopted the “comb” mustache we know him by today shortly thereafter.)

Great Britain:

Leonard Woolf did the typesetting for his wife Virginia’s novels at Hogarth Press. (Leonard’s hands shook so he couldn’t set type. It was actually Virginia Woolf who would do the typesetting, which she said felt calming and that it shaped her feel for words on the page, influencing her approach to writing.)

In 1926, Agatha Christie spent her 12 day disappearance at the Harrogate Hotel under the name of a relative of her husband Archie’s lover. She spent her time there planning to commit suicide as a way to frame her husband and his mistress for her “murder” but was stopped by a smitten American journalist. (Well, this is a theory which forms the plot in a movie called Agatha but we’re not sure what she did during that time. Still, her heirs fought two unsuccessful lawsuits in the US to prevent the film from being distributed. Also, she was missing for 10 days not 12 and may have been in a fit of amnesia at the time. Not to mention, she and Archie divorced in 1928 and her second husband was a British archaeologist so it’s unlikely she’d have a romance with an American reporter.)

Harold Abrahams was the first person to compete the Great Court Run through Trinity College in 1919. (This is just all smoke and mirrors nonsense from Chariots of Fire. The first person to compete in the Great Court Run was Lord David Burghley in 1927. Abrahams never competed in one.)

Harold Abrahams fell in love with Sybil Gordon during her performance in The Mikado who kissed him goodbye before the 1924 Paris Olympics. (She was a real person but Harold didn’t fall in love with her. However, he did end up dating and eventually marrying a woman named Sibyl Evers who was a singer in the same D’Oyly Carte Opera Company around the interwar period. Yet, he didn’t meet her until the 1930s. But neither of them played the lead female role in The Mikado. Still, Abrahams was a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan.)

Aubrey Montague was a student at Cambridge University. (He was a student of Oxford but Chariots of Fire takes place at Cambridge. Still, oddly Montague’s daily letters about Oxford he sent to his mother serve as narration for the film. Also, Montague died 30 years before Harold Abrahams yet in Chariots of Fire, he’s seen attending Abrahams’ funeral in 1978.)

Harold Abrahams first sought Sam Mussabini as he saw Eric Liddell race. (Eric Liddell introduced the two of them.)

Harold Abrahams lost the 200 meter run before winning the 100 meters. (He did both of these but he won the 100 meters before losing the 200. Still, Chariots of Fire is a sports move so a character’s losses have to go before his or her victories.)

During the international athletic meeting between Scotland and France, Eric Liddell was tripped up by a Frenchman in the 400 meter event, recovered, made up the 20 meter deficit, and won. (This actually happened but it was during the 440 yard race at the 1923 Triangular meet between England, Ireland, and Scotland. His achievement was remarkable because he also won the 100 yard and 220 yard races that day.)

Lord David Burghley had his butler place champagne glasses on hurdles at the grounds of his country estate so he didn’t catch them with his feet. (Actually he used matchboxes not champagne glasses. I’m sure the household staff wouldn’t let him use the glasses for his athletics. However, he wasn’t a contemporary of Harold Abrahams. Also, the Burghley expy of Lord Lindsay was created for Chariots of Fire because Douglas Lowe a a real gold medalist in the 1924 Olympics refused to get involved.)

Eric Liddell agonized over having to run the 100 meters race on a Sunday since he was a devout Christian raised by missionaries in China to respect the sabbath and his sister gave him hell for him enjoying himself on account of insulting God. (Jennie Liddell actually supported her brother’s running. Besides, it’s very common for sports competitions to fall on weekends at colleges anyway, even at those with a religious affiliation {this coming from someone who spent four years at a Catholic school}. Besides, don’t people usually spend Sundays watching sports anyway? Chariots of Fire just takes the religion idea too far.)

The Prince of Wales and Lord Birkenhead tried to convince Eric Liddell to run on the Sunday 100 meter competition. (Yes, Liddell did refuse to run on a Sunday yet he had the race schedule well in advance so he had plenty of time to swap events and train for the 400 meters. He didn’t have to switch places with anybody at short notice.)

Lord Burghley won a medal for the 400 meter hurdles during the 1924 Paris Olympics. (He actually went out in the first round in the 110 hurdles of the 1924 Olympics but he won medals in the 400 meter hurdles in the 1928 Olympics and the 1932.)

France:

Coco Chanel had an affair with Igor Stravinksy. (Well, both of them knew each other and had several affairs with other people, we’re not sure whether they had an affair with each other.)

Pablo Picasso had a lot of mistresses. (Yes, he was married twice, had affairs, and was famous for his love life. However, he was quite constant with his mistresses for he was with two of them for at least eight years {though he wasn’t necessarily faithful to them either}.)

After World War I destroyed his studio, Georges Melies burned his props and sold his films. (He actually burned his films and sold his props. Also, the costumes and sets for his movies were in shades of gray, not in their natural colors as depicted in Hugo.)

The Lost Generation:

F. Scott Fitzgerald was the co-dependent in his relationship with Zelda. (Yes, Zelda had problems but unlike in Midnight in Paris, but the Fitzgeralds’ marriage was nowhere near as harmonious as depicted in the film. Sure they loved each other but their marriage was plagued with financial difficulties {one of the reasons why Scott ended up moving to Hollywood}, infidelity {she cheated on him with a French pilot according to Hemingway}, her mental illness {schizophrenia and was later institutionalized}, and his alcoholism {since his college days}. Also, their relationship was quite stormy especially in their later years when Scott was having a long affair with dancer Sheila Graham. And during the 1930s, they became estranged. Not to mention, they had a daughter whose existence goes unmentioned in Midnight in Paris. Still, while Zelda is free to have her problems, Scott seems to be perfectly normal in the film.)

Zelda Fitzgerald was blond. (Maybe, but she was more of a dirty blonde or brownish blond than bleached.)

Ernest Hemingway was the ultimate literary man’s man. (Yet, we forget that he drank a lot, had affairs {which was one of the reasons he was married 4 times}, was subject to depression in the 1940s as he saw his many of his friends die, experienced all kinds of health problems due to his lifestyle {like severe headaches, high blood pressure, weight problems, and diabetes as well as had all kinds of injuries}, and eventually committed suicide.)

Miscellaneous:

The Roaring 1920s was a decade of great economic prosperity. (It was also a decade of great debt and there were burgeoning problems that only created the illusion of prosperity. Ditto, the notion of the unregulated consumer economy. Besides, there were plenty of people who weren’t doing that great during the decade, even before the Great Depression. For instance, in 1920s America, 60% of the population lived below the poverty line.)

The virus responsible for Spanish flu pandemic came from Spain. (The first outbreak of Spanish flu came from a military training facility in Kansas. The fact that it infected troops was a major factor in its spread.)

Flappers wore sleek bobs, fringe dresses, and feathered headbands. (Not always. Earlier flappers wore wide brimmed hats but longer and narrower skirts but still had that loose silhouette. Yet, as the decade progressed with the help of prominent women like Coco Chanel, hats became tighter and narrower while silhouettes became more streamlined and skirts became shorter.)

All men in the 1920s treated women with the same level of respect as other men. (Sometimes, but if Gertrude Stein didn’t have influence with or access to publishers and booksellers {or wasn’t able to get struggling writers published}, then she wouldn’t have received the respect she got. Also, if you were just an artist model or girlfriend in 1920s Paris, then your opinions were more easily dismissed. Not to mention, Hemingway doesn’t really treat his heroines well in his fiction. Not to mention, it’s a time when women were called, “broads,” “bunnies,” “dames,” and “dolls.” A woman who could sing was called a “canary” while one who was sexually promiscuous was called a “chatty girl.”)

Filtered cigarettes were available at this time. (Actually they wouldn’t be around until the mid-1950s.)

Elevators had push buttons at this time. (Actually push button elevators wouldn’t come around until the 1950s. Until then you had elevator operators.)

Pants in the 1920s had zipper closures. (Zippers on men’s pants wouldn’t be around until the 1930s.)

Lobotomies were a medical procedure at this time. (This nightmarish surgery wasn’t around until 1935.)

Cognitive dissonance theory of attitude was around during the 1920s. (This notion was first formulated in the late 1950s.)

Sliced bread was around before 1927. (Sliced bread was invented in 1928 and it was the best thing ever.)

Chocolate chip cookies were around in 1928. (They were invented in 1933.)

All 1920s films were silent and in black and white. (Many films did have sequences in color but this was painstaking work and didn’t happen that often. Also, 1927 had The Jazz Singer which paved the way for movies with sound.)

Exit signs were around in the 1920s. (They weren’t invented yet.)

Crop dusters were around in 1923. (The first commercial crop dusting company began operation in 1924.)

Parties were always awesome in the 1920s. (Except if you were a member of Gatsby’s staff who had to clean up after his parties. I don’t think that would be fun. Gatsby must pay them generously for all the work they did.)

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2 responses to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 59 – Life in 1920s Europe

  1. No chocolate chip cookies in the 20’s? Certainly not the good ol’ days! It seems like a pretty interesting time but I guess everyone wasn’t partying like in the movies.

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