Going to the cinema in the 1920s: the cinematographic experience during the roaring twenties

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The evolution of the film public is well known, it steadily increased to a peak it reached in the 1950s and then declined. This secular curve poses many questions: who were the spectators, did they belong to the same social group or were they divided according to previous social divisions? And more importantly, how did they receive the films, did the cinema influence their behavior and their ideas? This article would like to propose a critical evaluation of the available sources of free movies and to lay the theoretical bases for a study of cinema audiences.

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The Atlantic Monthly

One can smile at the willingly prophetic declaration of Katharine Fullerton Gerould, a film critic who, in 1921, confessed her lack of taste and experience for the cinematographic thing, and of course pointing out the moral dangers she presents, announces, however, in the Atlantic Monthly: It is certain that cinema is here to stay – at least for a time.

Yet, placed in context, such a statement, naive as it may be, is not as outlandish as it seems. Simply because what one might call “cinematic experience” has little to do with what we know at the time, and is more about popular entertainment than art.

  • However, if we have written a lot for decades, and especially since the Second World War, on the stars, on Hollywood, on the birth and extension of studios, on the phenomenon of concentration, on technical evolution, censorship, filmmakers and the films themselves, it is only in the last twenty years that we have taken a closer look at the social data (and, consequently, the ideological implications) of “Cinematographic experience”, thus extending and deepening considerably the work undertaken in the twenties by Ramsaye and the Lynds, then by Hampton, Jacobs, Powdermaker, and others.
  • There are basically two types of approach: the sophisticated sociological survey, restricted to a category of the public, generally child or teenager, and which aims essentially to analyze the impact and potential dangers of the new art for this vulnerable public and the historical approach, more globalizing, which usually gives pride of place to directors and films, addressing sociological issues (nature and public tastes for example) only incidentally. It is thus necessary to wait until 1976, with the study of Jowett, to find a first and remarkable synthesis bearing, as the title indicates, on the “social history of the American film”. Since, the works multiply, allowing a more refined knowledge, as much as more complete.

Two considerations will guide us in this exploration of the cinematographic experience of the twenties: the analysis of the essential differences compared to the preceding period and consequently the specificity of the period concerned and the consequences of the emergence of the speaking. It is not certain, for example, that the approach that considers that the history of cinema, at least in America, can be divided into relatively equal slices, each corresponding to a decade, is relevant. If 1929 corresponds, with the Krach, to the installation of the speaking, the debate and the problems raised are previous and will continue during the years 1930 and 1931. On the other hand, upstream, the year 1919 is not indicated, at least from a cinematographic point of view, by a particular specificity. Financial concentration, of course, is accelerating, but is not new. And change has been germinating for a long time, in all areas.