Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s

By Katie Doyle ; Updated October 03, 2017
The Hollywood sign in Los Angeles.

The 1920s and 1930s were decades of change in Hollywood. From the advent of sound to the implementation of the Hays Code, the movie industry experienced some of its most formative points over these 20 years. Hollywood was the hub of film production for an industry that released an average of 800 films per year. The movie industry was meeting the demand of a society quickly developing an appetite for feature films.

Socio-Cultural Overview

American society and Hollywood formed a symbiotic relationship with each other. The prosperity the U.S. was enjoying during the calm between World Wars I and II was reflected in the booming film industry during the 1920s -- a time many historical resources refer to as the Decade of Optimism. Later on, Hollywood offered a sense of escape from the Decade of Depression, also a commonly used term historians use to refer the 1930s. The industry experienced its Golden Age during a time when most of the country was suffering the effects of the Great Depression and the world was on the cusp of another war. From Republican Warren Harding's presidential win in 1920 to Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Hollywood withstood changing political climates, elastic social norms and a fluctuating economy that devastated the nation.

The Studio System

Starting in 1920, women got the vote, automobiles inspired feelings of adventure and freedom, Prohibition and immigration were introduced as hot political topics, and radio and film shaped American popular culture. Hollywood's studio system benefited from the overall feeling of positivity; this carried into the next decade as studios did not feel the initial impact of the Depression following the 1929 stock-market crash. The Big Five studios were Warner Bros., Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures, Metro Pictures Corporation and Fox Film Corporation. Although other, smaller studios existed, including Universal Pictures, the Big Five established during the 1920s produced 90 percent of fiction films in the U.S. These studios monopolized the filmmaking process, from preproduction to filming and distribution. The system lasted until the anti-trust rulings of the Supreme Court in the 1940s.

Hollywood Styles

The most critical development in Hollywood in the early 1920s was the "talkie." Over a few years, films evolved from lacking both color and sound to involving voices, music and Technicolor. Live musicians and orchestras would accompany silent films in theaters for effect. Films became more popular in society, leading to the rise of the studio era. Studios often had their own writing teams for each genre. The films of the 1920s and 1930s followed a formulaic style, often adopting a specific genre such as animation, Western, romance or mystery. With its dry, arid climate, outdoor scenes were filmed right in Hollywood. Universal City, the self-contained lot owned by Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures, is one example of a self-contained studio. His niece, actress Carla Laemmle, fondly recalled growing up with the studio's own soundstages, zoo, and even a hospital and fire department.

Studio Stars

The appearance of movie stars in the public eye accompanied the rise of the studio system. Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow, actors who performed in the silent films of the early 1920s, paved the way for future movie stars. When studios began keeping its stars for long-term contracts, they became so well-known that audiences began to identify the studios responsible for producing the films. The industry was very close-knit, with relatives often working for the same production company. By 1929, more than 100 million Americans were going to the movies each week; in that same year, the Oscars were instated. The following year saw a reversal in the trend of progressive Hollywood with the passing of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. Also known as the Hays Code, these guidelines reflected concern among the religious and conservative ranks about the morality of motion pictures. The Code placed restrictions on the matters of "sin" as portrayed by films, setting limits on sex, violence, vulgarity and obscenity, among other allegedly questionable content. The Hays Code governed Hollywood until the Motion Picture Association of America adopted a rating system in 1966.

About the Author

Katie Doyle is a writer with passions for food, travel and fascinating stories. Her work has appeared on GoAbroad.com and other travel blogs. She is a graduate of Marquette University with a Bachelor of Arts in communication.