Category Archives: Living the High Life of the Roaring Twenties

From where we sit today, is the 1920s was an almost primitive cultural era: entertainment technology was still in its infancy, the old century’s ways of life still held sway, and everybody was dizzy with wealth, post–World War I élan, wild crime, unstoppered drink, and the new idea of universally experienced glamour. The 1930s had the Depression to sober it, and the ’40s had World War II, but the ’20s had no brakes.

The Cat’s Meow (2001)

A true Hollywood scandal fictionalized rather adroitly: in 1924, pioneering producer Thomas Ince died, perhaps after being shot—maybe accidentally, maybe not—aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann), in a scenario that also involved Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), actress (and Hearst’s mistress) Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst) and Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), who would soon become a lifelong columnist for Hearst Newspapers. The Cat’s Meow was a return to fluency by director Peter Bogdanovich.

English: Thomas H. Ince publicity photo. Thoma...
English: Thomas H. Ince publicity photo. Thomas Ince Studios, Culver City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

The gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America  as fractured opium daydream, tripping back and forth in the skull of a Jewish hood (Robert De Niro) until the past, present, and future more or less mush into a mournful opera of betrayal and guilt. Along for the pageant: James Woods as a weaselly cohort, pre-Downton Abbey Elizabeth McGovern as the trollop that got away, Tuesday Weld as a decaying slattern, and Joe Pesci as an unlucky rival. Directed by Sergio Leone, the man that made Clint Eastwood famous in A Fistful of Dollars, this reckless monstrosity spends its plot, characters, and themes like a drunken sailor: settle for nothing less than the nearly-four-hour version, but even then, the film can barely contain so much stuff. 1890s New York childhoods, teenage hookers, Prohibition, hits, rapes, backstabbings, lost love—Leone left nothing out, making this the buddy elegy flip side to The Godfather’s familial moan. With, ironically enough, one of Ennio Morricone’s most heartfelt scores.

The Fortune (1975)

The Fortune
The Fortune (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the best and wittiest of the comedies made during the 1970s ”look back in fondness” craze, Mike Nichols’s The Fortune —about a pair of nitwits (Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson) who attempt to murder ditzy heiress Stockard Channing—is so summer-before-the-Crash hazy that the cinematography itself seems light-headed with humidity. The 1920s atmosphere is all sun, white linen, old convertibles, improperly paved country roads, palm trees, and screwball, like a Gatsby scenario with its pants down.

Death Takes a Holiday (1934)

Death Takes a Holiday
Death Takes a Holiday (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Concerning the idle rich, for whom every season is summer, the semi-forgotten fantasy Death Takes a Holiday (remade decades later, at twice the length, as Meet Joe Black) is vintage “lost generation, in tuxes and satin gowns, loiters with martinis on a marble veranda at midnight.” Until, of course, Death (a stunningly stiff Fredric March) decides to visit and see what being mortal is like.