The glamour and aspiration of the movie industry’s so-called golden age, typically dated from the 1910s to the mid-20th century, still captures imaginations today. However, for all the big stars, box-office smashes, and glitzy premieres and parties, the reality of what was happening behind the scenes in Hollywood was far more complex.


In particular, Tinsel Town in the 1920s was driven by excess – a stark contrast to a wider society governed by Prohibition – and where there was excess, scandal was sure to follow…

When were the first silent films produced?

On 24 August 1891, American inventor Thomas Edison, who had already seen success with the telegraph and light bulb, stretched science that little bit further when he successfully manufactured the Kinetograph (a motion picture camera) and the Kinetoscope (a peep-hole motion picture viewer). The financial potential of Edison’s inventions, which built on innovations such as the Lumière Brothers’ Cinématographe, was quickly realised. And so the silent era began, and flourished through the turn of the century, a world war, and into the 1920s.

A Kinetograph, an early film camera
1st July 1912: A Kinetograph camera, an early film camera, the original of which was patented in 1891 and designed by WKL Dickson working under the direction of Thomas Edison. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“You’ve got various kinds of technological innovations that make the mass transportation of cinema possible,” says cultural and literature historian Sarah Churchwell on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. “That exploded in the early 1920s.”

People flocked to watch these silent films. It is important to note that this definition of ‘silent’ can be misinterpreted: in the earliest days, screenings were accompanied by a phonograph recording of music; then as movie theatres became more established, pianists and organists were hired to play during the film. In some of the larger cities, a full orchestra would provide the score.

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Edison dominated the industry, owning most of the patents to motion pictures and receiving fees from those who wished to screen films in the United States. This influence only increased further when he founded the Motion Picture Patents Company. Often referred to as the Edison Trust, it had strict rules: those screening a film could only use patented equipment, run for no more than 20 minutes, and were unable to show film credits.

Orange, NJ: Interior of the Kinetographic Theatre, Edison's laboratory, Showing Phonograph and Kinetograph.
Orange, NJ: Interior of the Kinetographic Theatre, Edison's laboratory, showing Phonograph and Kinetograph. (Photo by GettyImages)

Soon, there was pushback to Edison’s tactics. Smaller companies, such as Majestic Films and Famous Players, successfully fought him on his strict laws, and his company was sold in 1918. What’s more, until this point many movies had been made around New York and Chicago, but from around 1908 filmmakers began relocating to southern California, drawn to the cheaper land and a climate that allowed for filming to carry on all year around. This prompted a monumental change as the world’s film capital moved from Fort Lee, in New Jersey, to the west coast of the US and a spot that would become Hollywood.

What was the reaction to the move to California?

Until the film companies showed up and replaced a landscape of rolling fields and orchards with sprawling studio lots and sets, Hollywood was a farming town.

Film historian Mark Glancy discussed this transformation on the HistoryExtra podcast, saying it was “far flung from the rest of the United States at the turn of the century. Los Angeles was a small city then and it was several days travelling time from the east coast.”

Not every local was excited to be so near to the magic of the movies, either. Resentment simmered as the area of Los Angeles changed, and there was a lot of anger towards the most visible faces of the industry – the stars. Some shops and cafes began displaying signs declaring, ‘No Dogs or Actors Allowed’.

circa 1928: 1920's Hollywood film star, Clara Bow (1905 - 1965). (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)
1928, Clara Bow. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

That did not dissuade swathes of people from making the move. Hollywood was quickly becoming the place to be if you wanted to be make it in film. American actors such as Gloria Swanson (b1899), Mary Pickford (b1892), and Clara Bow (see below) would make their names in the silent films of the 1920s, joined by the likes of Gary Cooper (b1901) John Gilbert (see below) and the British actor Charlie Chaplin (b1889).

Before this move, Glancy said the film industry was “much more disparate and spread-out”, but at Hollywood it became “much more centralised around several companies”. These included Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.

What were the characteristics of silent films?

Since the pictures playing out on screen did not have sound, other elements had to be utilised in order to keep audiences entertained. Films produced in this era often featured intertitles – a card with words on it that punctuated the action – to narrate plot points or provide occasional piece of dialogue.

Erich von Stroheim (1885 - 1957, left) as Max von Mayerling, and Gloria Swanson (1899 - 1983) as Norma Desmond in the final scene of 'Sunset Boulevard', directed by Billy Wilder, 1950.
Erich von Stroheim (1885 - 1957, left) as Max von Mayerling, and Gloria Swanson (1899 - 1983) as Norma Desmond in the final scene of 'Sunset Boulevard', directed by Billy Wilder, 1950. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The acting was far more emphatic too, as expressions were vital in understanding what feelings the actors were portraying. Compared to the subtleties and nuances of screen acting today, there were far fewer differences between acting in a film than on a stage in the theatre, where there was a need to emote to the back of the room. In the 1950 hit Sunset Boulevard, the embittered and deluded silent-film star Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson) captures this when she declares: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”

In profile: Clara Bow

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1905, Clara Bow grew up far from the opulence of the movie industry, in severe poverty. The only surviving child, she was often neglected by her mentally ill mother and sexually abused by a father who would disappear from the family home for long periods.

At the age of 16, she found her escape at a talent spotting contest and secured her first small role in the film Beyond the Rainbow (1922). Her scenes were eventually cut from the final edit – and were not seen until after she found fame and they were put back in – but her real big break came shortly afterwards, later that year. Bow starred in Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), a film loathed by critics, but for which her performance won praise.

Following this, an employee of Preferred Pictures approached her on set with an offer of the train fare to Hollywood and a three-month probationary contract of $50 a week. Bow signed and started working. BP Schulberg, head of Preferred Pictures, also loaned her to other studios (a common practice at the time) for a series of small roles, which helped Bow make a name for herself.

In 1924, she was selected as one of the WAMPAS (Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers) Baby Stars, an award for young actresses believed to be on the cusp of stardom. And so it was: the next year, Bow starred in The Plastic Age, which made her Preferred Pictures’ biggest star, and the 1927 film It turned her into the archetypal ‘It Girl’.

What truth is there that Bow retired due to her voice being too ugly for ‘talkies’?

It is a misconception that Bow’s career ended because her voice wasn’t appropriate for talking pictures. She made several, the first being hugely popular film The Wild Party (1929). These new films did prove a struggle for Bow, however. Unaccustomed to the more rigid style of filmmaking, she developed a fear of the recording equipment and reportedly had to retake several scenes as her eyes kept wandering to the microphone overhead.

In reality, Bow’s failing mental and physical health was what ended her career. She had schizophrenia, and the pressures of fame exacerbated her deep-rooted and unresolved childhood traumas. She retired in 1933 at just 28. Her last public appearance was on the radio show Truth or Consequences in 1947; two years later, she was admitted to The Institute of Living, a psychiatric facility in Connecticut, to receive treatment for debilitating insomnia.

Bow died on 27 September 1965 from a heart attack, aged 60. The autopsy revealed she had suffered from atherosclerosis, a heart disease developed in early adolescence.

The scandals that rocked 1920s Hollywood

Among the most infamous of the sensational news stories that came out of Hollywood was the murder, in 1922, of William Desmond Taylor. The director of dozens of silent films was found dead in his Los Angeles bungalow, with bullet wounds in his back. What’s more, a group of actors, actresses and studio executives were present at the scene, rummaging through Taylor’s belongings. The murder, which remains unsolved to this day, became a nationwide cause célèbre.

The previous year, another death had rattled the industry: model and actress Virginia Rappe had fallen ill at a party held by Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle – the highest-paid film star in the country, with a $3 million contract with Paramount – and died four days later. The cause was a ruptured bladder and secondary peritonitis, which Rappe’s close friend Bambina Maude Delmont testified was the result of a violent sexual assault by Arbuckle.

The story spread around Hollywood, and Delmont toured the country sharing stories of great evils in the film industry. Statements such as these enlightened the public to the sordid details of some on the silver screen, so much so that by the mid-1920s, Hollywood’s scandals were regularly making daily features in newspapers.

Even Charlie Chaplin, perhaps the most famous face from the silent film era, was caught up in the maelstrom. Although beloved for his moustachioed and dishevelled character, The Tramp, he had a highly controversial personal life. Two of his four wives were under 18 years old when he married them; the divorce document compiled for his second, Lita Gray, provided damning accounts of his abusive behaviour and seduction of her whilst she was underage.

1914: British actor and director Charles Chaplin (1889 - 1977), in costume as the Tramp, looks into a movie camera as two cameramen stand by in a still from director Henry Lehrman's silent film, 'Kid Auto Races at Venice'. It was Chaplin's first screen appearance as the Tramp. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1914: British actor and director Charles Chaplin (1889 - 1977), in costume as the Tramp, looks into a movie camera as two cameramen stand by in a still from director Henry Lehrman's silent film, 'Kid Auto Races at Venice'. It was Chaplin's first screen appearance as the Tramp. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Beyond individual accounts, the wider lifestyle in the 1920s industry shaped the Hollywood lifestyle as we might imagine it today. While outwardly supportive of Prohibition, many successful actors spent their high wages on drugs and alcohol behind closed doors. Soon, newspapers were brandishing stories of actors being admitted to sanatoriums and some, including Wallace Reid and Barbara La Marr, died from addiction.

Scandals did not do Hollywood’s reputation any favours, and soon actors had ‘moral turpitude clauses’ included in their contracts. According to Forbes, the movie studio Universal outlined this as “anything tending to degrade you in society or bring you into public hatred, contempt, scorn or ridicule, or tending to shock, insult or offend the community or outrage public morals or decency”.

What happened when the pressure became too much?

Away from the scandals and headlines, the pressures of living a Hollywood life were tricky for anyone to contend with, let alone the performers who entered the film industry at a young age or those who never got their big break.

In 1932, the 24-year-old actress Peg Entwistle ended her life by jumping from the ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign. She had been struggling to get roles and RKO Pictures had not renewed her contract. A hiker discovered her body and found a note in her purse that read: “I am afraid I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain.”

Jean Harlow, feted as the original ‘blonde bombshell’, similarly died at a young age. Her mother had been a failed actor, so pushed Jean to become one in her place. Her original name was Harlean Carpenter, but took her mother’s name in her career. She went to the Hollywood School for Girls, but left at 16 when she eloped with 23-year-old Charles McGrew. They divorced just two years later, just as her career was taking off.

Portrait of Jean Harlow in a pensive pose, wearing a black v-necked dress.
Portrait of Jean Harlow. (Photo by GettyImages)

Over the next decade, Harlow starred in 43 films. Meanwhile, tragedies and issues plagued her private life: her second husband, MGM executive Paul Bern, was presumed to have taken his own life; and she divorced her third, Harold Rosson, within a year. It was when she was about to get married for the fourth time that she became dangerously ill. Her drinking, and already weakened state caused by meningitis and scarlet fever during childhood, led to Harlow being diagnosed with uremic poisoning. She died at the age of 26.

In profile: John Gilbert

Born John Pringle on 10 July 1897 in Utah, John Gilbert became a romantic leading man known as the ‘great lover’. His parents were actors in stock company companies – usually made up of players who specialised in archetypal roles, such as leading man, leading lady and villain – and their careers meant they were not very present during his childhood. His was a lonely upbringing.

He began his career while still a teenager. In 1915, he moved to Hollywood and found work as an extra with the Thomas Ince Studios. He then worked as a writer at Paralta Studios (also known as Paralta Plays), followed by a stint as a production assistant to director Maurice Tourneur. The director hired him to act, write and direct several films. By 1917, Gilbert was playing leading roles.

In 1921, he signed a three-year contract with Fox Film Corporation and became a featured player. His rise to stardom gained apace when he joined the newly formed movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and appeared with many of the top names of the silent era, including Barbara La Marr and Mae Murray.

The peak of Gilbert’s popularity came when cast opposite Swedish-American actor Greta Garbo in three consecutive romances: Flesh and the Devil (1927), Love (1927), and A Woman of Affairs (1928). The chemistry on screen was matched in real life too as the pair started dating. Their relationship was not short of its advantages, providing MGM with publicity, but not plain sailing. Garbo reportedly rejected three marriage proposals, then did not turn up when they eventually arranged a wedding in September 1926.

Gilbert later married four times. His career took a downturn in the transition from silent films to ‘talkies’. His film with sound, His Glorious Night (1929), was poorly received by audiences and critics accused his voice of being too high pitched, which did not match his reputation as the romantic lead. While he did feature in other films, such as Downstairs (1932), his career never fully recovered. He died of a heart attack in 1936, at the age of 38.

Did the rise of the ‘talkies’ kill the careers of silent stars?

There is a belief that many film stars, like John Gilbert, watched on helplessly as their time in the spotlight was snatched away as the ‘talkies’ took over.

1924: American film star John Gilbert (1895 - 1936), formerly John Pringle, who was unsuccessful with sound movies and became an alcoholic. He is viewed in scene from 'He who gets Slapped', a film about a tortured scientist who starts a new life as a circus clown. The film was directed by Victor Sjostrom for MGM. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1924: John Gilbert in scene from 'He who gets Slapped', a film about a tortured scientist who starts a new life as a circus clown. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Certainly, it was a different artform to contend with: for one, directors could no longer talk as the cameras rolled, so there was less guidance than during filming in the silent era.

However, Mark Glancy told HistoryExtra that the belief we have about this transition is largely a myth perpetuated by blockbuster films like Singing in the Rain (1952). “This idea that Lina Lamont [a silent film star played by Jean Hagen], with her screeching voice, was typical of silent stars who couldn’t survive the transition to talkies.”

It did “ruin a few careers”, he adds, “but it wasn’t the kind of overwhelming change that it’s sometimes portrayed to be.”

What other challenges did Hollywood in this era face?

Beyond the strains within the Hollywood machinery itself, the film industry was not immune to factors outside of the California hills. The most damaging was the stock market crash on in October 1929, which brought about the Great Depression and ruined millions of people in the US. Film investors were among them.

The front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper with the headline 'Wall St. In Panic As Stocks Crash', published on the day of the initial Wall Street Crash of 'Black Thursday', 24th October 1929.
The front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper with the headline 'Wall St. In Panic As Stocks Crash', published on the day of the initial Wall Street Crash of 'Black Thursday', 24th October 1929. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Abram F Myers, chairman of the Allied States Association of Motion Picture Exhibitors, said in a 1932 edition of Film Daily: “The motion picture business is neither depression-proof nor fool-proof.”

The situation only became worse. In March 1933, President Franklin D Roosevelt issued Proclamation 2039 – the order to stop all banking transactions immediately. This was the case for a week, and, in response, film studios cut the salaries of most of their production workers by 50 percent. When the banks reopened, the cuts remained, leading many film industry employees to feel that they had been taken advantage of. Trade unions formed in response: the Screen Writers Guild in April 1933, followed by the Screen Actors Guild.

In 1954, the Screen Writers Guild approved to form a national union for a broader cohort of writers across not only film, but television and radio too. They then formed two separate bodies, becoming the Writers Guild of America, West and Writers Guild of America, East. These unions still exist today.

What is the legacy of this period in Hollywood’s history?

Within a decade, Hollywood transformed from a small farming town to the centre of tabloid speculation and scandal.


A place where dreams were made, and crushed, Hollywood had a pull like no other. It is no wonder this golden age continues to hold such fascination nearly a century on – after all, people still flock to the bright lights today. Some will make it while others fall short; a sad history that has repeated itself and will continue to do so, as long as actors grace the silver screen.


Lauren GoodDigital Content Producer, HistoryExtra

Lauren Good is the digital content producer at HistoryExtra. She joined the team in 2022 after completing an MA in Creative Writing, and she holds a first-class degree in English and Classical Studies.