Learn about Life in the 1920s

Historical Timeline of 1920's Movie History


Valentino Poster

United Artists Corporation was formed by Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith who were all leading movie stars of the time.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were married on March 27 1920 and were feted as the king and queen of the movies. Their home, Pickfair, became the center of social activities in Hollywood.

The German film, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, was released.

Jackie Coogan was discovered by Charlie Chaplin and became a star following his role in "The Kid".

A foreign film "Passion" brought stardom in the U.S. for Polish actress Pola Negri.

Sports stars Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey made their acting debuts but their acting wasn't up to the same level as their athletic activity.

Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were two of the leading comedians, while Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle retired from acting in disgrace following a scandal.

Will Rogers, Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson and Clara Kimball Young were all popular rising actors and actresses.

John Barrymore appeared in "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde".


Charlie Chaplin Poster

One of the most important events in 1921 was the rise of Rudolph Valentino as a star. Following his appearance in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" the public could not get enough of him. He appeared in "The Conquering Power" and then a major role in "The Sheik" which increased his popularity even further.

Paramount Pictures made a total of 101 feature–length movies.

Charlie Chaplin finished his contract at First National and then joined Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford at United Artists.

Germany's F.W. Murnau directs "Nosferatu" based on the story of Dracula.

Charlie Chaplin releases his first feature film, “The Kid”.


Tarzan Poster

"Nanook of the North" was one of the first documentary style films. "The Prisoner of Zenda" with Ramon Navarro was one of the years big hits.

Even though many of the movies with stars like Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson and Wallace Reid were only average quality the pulling power of the leading stars attracted the paying public and ensured their success.

Walt Disney released the cartoon, “Four Musicians of Bremen”.

D.W. Griffiths made "Orphans of the Storm" and "The Two Orphans" starring two attractive sisters, Lillian and Dorothy Gish.

"Foolish Wives" by Erich Von Stroheim was a successful movie for Universal.

First 3-D movie. Viewing required spectacles with one red and one green lens.

Hollywood became the center of film making in the U.S. with 85% of movie production.


One of the great successes of 1923 was the large scale epic "The Covered Wagon", followed by Cecile B. De Mille's epic "The Ten Commandments" which was 2 1/2 hours long and cost $1.5 million.

Metreo and Goldwyn combined to form the Metro-Goldwyn studio.

Pola Negri, the star of many popular German films was signed by Paramount studio and made her first American film "Bella Donna".

Former beauty contest winner Clara Bow appeared in "Down to the Sea in Ships".

Douglas Fairbanks Jr appeared in his first film "Stephen Steps Out".

Much acclaim was bestowed on a German film, "Siegfried" for the quality of its photography.


Rudolph Valentino

The public began the demand bigger and better pictures rather than low budget run-of-the-mill fare, and so bigger budget films were made. Films included "The Sea Hawk", "The Iron Horse", "Dante's Inferno", "Monsieur Beaucaire" with Rudolph Valentino, and "America" by D. W. Griffith.

Metro-Goldwyn changed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with the addition of Louis B. Mayer, and became one of the more powerful studios. Warner Brothers also grew significantly by signing up a swag of new stars and directors. One of the new stars was a dog, Rin-Tin-Tin, who became probably the greatest animal star ever.

Harry Cohn, along with his brother Jack and Joe Brandt found Columbia Pictures.

Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri and Rudolph Valentino were still riding high in popularity. The De Mille brothers and D.W. Griffiths were among the leading directors. Many of the former film stars were now directing movies.


1925 was not a good year for the studio or theatre owners with a large drop in box-office takings. This was attributed to the growing popularity of radio. Films that did reasonably well included "The Phantom of the Opera", "The Big Parade", "Peter Pan", and "The Gold Rush" regarded as Charlie Chaplin's best film.

Erich von Stroheim's film, “Greed”, is released by MGM after cutting it from 5 1/2 hours, down to 2 1/2 hours.

Vitagraph, one of the oldest studios, sold out to Warner Brothers who inherited all the research undertaken by Vitagraph in the field of sound.

Cecile B. De Mille went out on his own, independent of any studio.

Alfred Hitchcock made his directing debut at age 26 with "The Pleasure Garden".

Actors and Actresses who were starting out and yet to become famous included Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, and Carole Lombard.


Over 400 feature films were made at a cost of 120 million dollars and there were 14,600 movie theatres in the U.S.

Rudolph Valentino died on August 23rd of peritonitis at the age of 31 and huge crowds gathered to watch his funeral train.

The technology that would lead to talking pictures was being trialed in different forms. Initially it was just synchronized musical scores but it would soon lead to "talkies".

The new two–tone Technicolor color process was used in Douglas Fairbank's "The Black Pirate".

Costing over $4 million to make, "Ben Hur" was the hit film of the year. Valentino's last film was "The Son of the Sheik".

Swedish film star Greta Garbo received acclaim in "Torrent", while Gary Cooper was applauded for "The Winning of Barbara Worth".


Clara Bow

Clara Bow made a film called "It" which became synonomous with sex appeal and she was immediately dubbed the “It” Girl. She also had a big hit with "Wings", a military aviation film.

Top rating films for the year included "The King of Kings", "Sunrise", and "Seventh Heaven". Cecile B. De Mille considered "The King of Kings" to be his best film and it has been viewed by over five hundred million people making it one of the greatest movies ever.

The Warner Bro's film "The Jazz Singer" starring Al Jolson is generally recognized as the first "talkie," even though it consisted mostly of music with only a couple of hundred spoken words. The Vitaphone sound–on–disc system was used.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed in Hollywood by the leading directors, producers, writers and actors.

At the first Academy Awards Janet Gaynor received best actress for her performances in "Seventh Heaven", "Sunrise", and "Street Angel". Best male actor was Emil Jennings for "The Way of all Flesh" and "The Last Command".

Vitaphone competitors, "Movietone" sound-on-film by Western Electric, and "Photophone" by RCA are developed.


Motion picture producers finally realized that the public wanted "talkies" and that it was just what was needed to pull the industry out of the slump. Movie theatres were upgraded with sound systems to handle the "Talkies". Many films were just part "talkie" and part musical score during this transition phase.

Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer films start with a logo of roaring lion showing in a frame, accompanied by MGM's new motto, "Ars gratia artis" (Art for arts sake). The logo was based on the original Goldwyn Pictures logo and the Lion was called Slats.

RKO Radio Pictures Corporation is formed by G.E./Westinghouse/R.C.A. to exploit RCA's sound patent

Walt Disney produced the animated cartoon films, "Plane Crazy" and Steamboat Willie" starring Mickey Mouse.

Mickey Rooney appeared in the silent film "Power" starring William Boyd.


Marx Brothers Poster

The film industry was now fully committed to "talkies" and silent films were almost a relic of the past. Suddenly the voice of an actor assumed major importance and stars without quality voices fell from grace. Studios rushed to recruit actors with stage experience and many existing actors were forced to take voice lessons.

The Marx Brothers' first movie, “The Cocoanuts” is released.

MGM releases its “All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing” musical, “Broadway Melody”.

The first British talking picture is released, "Blackmail", directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

In what is seen as a sign of racial tolerance, MGM releases the African-American sound feature film, “Hallelujah”.


In 1931 the last of the silent movies were released.