1920 Movies – General Introduction
During the 1920s, the Music Hall, Theatre and Opera were gradually being superseded by the arrival of the Cinema in the UK. The 1920s saw this medium gradually increase and become more sophisticated, with the silent movies gradually being superseded with ‘talking pictures’ at the end of the decade. There is such a wide variety of films released during this decade that is will also be able to give you plenty of costume inspiration if you are looking for an alternative to the traditional Gangsters & Molls costumes that are commonly worn for a 1920s themed fancy dress party.
Film Stars of the Nineteen-Twenties
The 1920s era was when the movie stars began to take control. In the early days of the ‘silents’ the Studios controlled their ‘talent’ but as the popularity of the stars grew, they realized their strength and bargaining power and some – the ‘United Artists’ of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffiths even started their own Studio in 1919.
Not all artists adapted well as the ‘talkies’ took over, but many remain legendary for their work and charisma as early media stars. The 1920s saw the very first Academy Awards presented at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in 1929.
Theda Bara – A leading ‘femme fatale’ actress in silent movies, who was one of the first to be termed a ‘Movie Vamp’. Her ‘oriental’ style costumes left little to the imagination, whilst her dark/smokey-eyed make-up was another of her trademarks. Although she did try to vary her range, she became typecast in the vamp roles, one of her most famous being that of Cleopatra – see our Egyptian costumes
Charlie Chaplin – Probably one of the best known of the silent film stars of the 1920s, whose work continued through the ‘talkies’ and, as producer/director, into the late 20th century. The classic image is ‘the Tramp’, which consisted of an ill-fitting suit with baggy trousers, bowler hat and cane was seen in several of his films including The Kid.
Clara Bow – Clara Bow was a leading actress of the 1920s silent movies. She, like others, became regarded as a screen sex symbol, but Clara was more the fun-loving girl-next-door flapper than the brooding ‘vamp’. It was said she was the original ‘It’ girl, ‘It’ being defined as the quality possessed by some that draws others by its magnetic force. The 1920s short curly bob style was part of her look. She was a redhead, who enhanced her look with henna dye and used red lipstick to create a ‘Clara Bow’. She also helped popularize sailor pants and pleated skirts as fashion items.
Louise Brooks – Popular ‘flapper’ star, who pioneered the trademark bobbed hairstyle. Our Flapper costumes are ideal to portray this 1920s lady.
Lon Chaney – Known as the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ this versatile actor eventually specialized in ‘grotesque’ character roles such as the Phantom of the Opera & Quasimodo.
Douglas Fairbanks Snr – Silent screen actor specializing in action hero roles, such as Robin Hood. In 1927 he was elected first president of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences.
Greta Garbo – Swedish film star. One of the few stars who made the transition from silent screen to talkies. Famous for wanting to be alone!
Buster ‘Stoneface’ Keaton, Harold Lloyd or other comedy heroes of the silent screen – Buster Keaton was known for wearing a boater, whilst the small moustache, bowler and cane became Chaplin’s trademark symbols. Others such as Laurel & Hardy wore standard 1920s clothing.
Pola Negri – Polish ‘femme fatale’ actress who claimed (after his death) that she and Rudolph Valentino had planned to marry.
Mary Pickford – The ‘girl with the curls’ and movie sweetheart who helped found United Artists and the American Motion Picture Academy. Her second husband was Douglas Fairbanks Snr, who she was married to throughout the 1920s. Curly hair and flowery dresses depict this silent screen star.
Gloria Swanson – Gloria Swanson was a prominent actress, fashion icon and a true glitz and glamour star from the silent film era. She helped popularize glittery evening gowns with feathered cloaks, capes or accessories, but her trademark accessory (obviously widely copied as a result) were high-heel shoes decorated with imitation pearls and rhinestones. Not all artists adapted well as the ‘talkies’ took over, but many remain legendary for their work and charisma as early media stars.
Her popularity faded in the 1930s. In 1950 Swanson effectively parodied herself, taking the role of the fading silent movie star Norma Desmond in the film ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (“ You were in silent pictures. You used to be big” “I am big – it’s the pictures that got small.”)
Rudolph Valentino - Probably the first screen heart-throb, his most iconic role being in the film The Sheikh (our Arab man costumes are ideal), although he also played a matador in ‘Blood and Sand’ and various gangsters in early silent films. His death in 1928, aged just 31, created its own drama when 100,000 people lined the streets of New York for the funeral. A second funeral was also held on the US West Coast, for the benefit of his other fans.
MOVIES RELEASED DURING THE 1920s
When it comes to dressing up for a 1920s event, why not look at some of the film suggestions that were around in the cinema at the time? Given that the films of the period were all in black and white, the interpretation of the idea and colour scheme is up to you! There are some film titles you might even recognise, as some films and stage shows were re-imagined during the 20th and 21st centuries.
The General (1926) – Buster Keaton pursuing a train through enemy lines, in this comedy classic.
The Gold Rush (1925) – Charlie Chaplin in his tramp persona, heads for the Klondike in search of gold.
The Mark of Zorro (1920) – The first appearance of Zorro in the movies. In this version he is played by action hero Douglas Fairbanks. We have a great selection of capes, masks & swords for a Zorro costume
The Sheik (1921) – This was Rudolph Valentino’s iconic role. There was also a follow-up ‘Son of the Sheik’ (1926).
The Thief of Baghdad (1924) – Douglas Fairbanks in this fantasy adventure of a thief who pursues a princess.
Flesh and the Devil (1926)
John Gilbert, Greta Garbo & Lars Hanson caught in an eternal love triangle.
It (1927) – Not the Stephen King novel, but a comedy romance, starring actress Clara Bow, who was perceived as the original girl with ‘It’.
Wings (1927) – Film starring Clara Bow, in which two young men, in love with the same woman, become fighter pilots in World War I. Take a look at our hire Biggles costumes
The Circus (1928) – Charlie Chaplin as the tramp, who finds both work and his dream-girl at the circus. We have a great selection of clown accessories and other circus costumes in our hire section
Putting Pants on Philip (1927) – Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s first official pairing in a short silent film.
Battleship Potemkin (1925) – An iconic Russian film about a naval mutiny and police massacre, which resulted in the Russian Revolution.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) – Lon Chaney in this version of Victor Hugo’s book. Wear Esmerelda ‘gypsy’ style costumes and a medieval peasant for the hunchback
The Lodger (1927) – First trademark Alfred Hitchcock film, about a man who is suspected of killing women by his landlady.
Nanook of the North (1922) – An early silent documentary drama about a year in the lives of Inuit Eskimos.
The Ten Commandments (1923) – Cecil B de Mille film in two parts – The story of Moses and the Ten Commandments and the use of the commandments in ‘modern-day’ San Francisco.Our Jesus costume is ideal to wear as a moses costume
Metropolis (1927) – Fritz Lang’s classic futuristic Sci-Fi film.
The Black Pirate (1926) – Pirates have always been a popular source of inspiration for films and costumes. Douglas Fairbanks stars in this silent film. We stock a great range of pirate costumes (to purchase or to hire) as well as a large range of pirate accessories
Robin Hood (1922) – Douglas Fairbanks stars in this version of the Robin Hood Legend. We have Robin Hood costumes to hire and to purchase
The Three Musketeers (1921) – Based on the Alexander Dumas book and starring Douglas Fairbanks as the swashbuckling hero D’Artagnan. Musketeer costumes and accessories are available.
Ben-Hur (1925) – Roman epic recreated several times during the twentieth century and beyond. We have a great range of Roman costumes to hire and to purchase
King of Kings (1927) – Cecil B DeMille directed this film about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, through the eyes of Mary Magdalene.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – The telling of the trial of Joan of Arc and her holy visions.
Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) – Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, brought to the silver screen, starring John Barrymore.
Nosferatu (1922) – Silent classic based on the Dracula story. Costumes are available.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’ Lon Chaney plays the Phantom, in this version of the story written by Gaston Leroux.
The Jazz Singer (1927) – Starring Al Jolson, this was deemed to be the first Talking Picture, albeit to a musical soundtrack.
The Iron Horse (1924) – Based around the coming of the railways in America.
Films set in the 1920s
Bright Young Things – The 2003 film which was directed by Stephen Fry and based on Evelyn Waugh’s book ‘Vile Bodies’, gave an insight into the antics of a typical socialite lifestyle.
Thoroughly Modern Millie – This film starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler-Moore is a good source of costume reference, particularly for America in the 1920s.
TV Shows set in the 1920s
Blandings – Initially set in 1929, the costumes from this drama will work for both the 1920s and 1930s.
Downton Abbey – Initially set in the 1910s, the third series due in 2013, tracks the fortunes of the household in 1920.
The House of Elliott – Costume drama based on a 1920s fashion house.