The Jazz Age on Film


You have until May 10 to practice your Charleston. Baz Luhrmann’s raucous adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, is bound to be a whirlwind, and volumes have already been written about the highly anticipated soundtrack featuring Beyoncé, Lana Del Rey, and more. To prepare for the decadent depiction of lavish parties and millionaire love triangles, we’re going straight to the source. Luhrmann is renowned for adding a contemporary twist to period stories, but the Moulin Rouge director strives for authenticity in his sets, costuming, and other details. That’s why we wanted to take a look at several films that actually premiered during the Jazz Age, to gain an authentic feel for the epoch. Get in the mood for Gatsby by adding these films to your playlist, and see how Hollywood first embodied the carefree spirit of the 1920s.

The Affairs of Anatol

Long before Gloria Swanson was ready for her final close-up with Cecil B. DeMille in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, she made one last movie with the director during the twenties, before their studio contract expired and she signed on with Paramount. In The Affairs of Anatol, Swanson plays a woman whose husband (Wallace Reid) gallantly rescues troubled women. But his moralistic pursuits backfire, and soon he’s wandering into the arms of another. The film is one of DeMille’s best early social comedies, and explores the perennial themes of loyalty and honesty — albeit, with tongue planted firmly in cheek.


Cecil B. DeMille also produced (and part directed) the original Chicago in 1927 — a production based on the Maurine Dallas Watkins play. Silent starlet Phyllis Haver portrayed the jazz-loving, boozy flapper Roxie Hart who murders her husband and becomes a media sensation. There are no ostentatious Gatsby mansions here; merely a rundown Chicago apartment and the drudgery of daily life. See it for a snappy, broad critique of the media and corruptible public, and for DeMille’s signature satirical wit.

Our Dancing Daughters

Joan Crawford, Anita Page, and Dorothy Sebastian play wild jazz babies figuring it all out in the 1928 movie. Bonus: 24-year-old Crawford dances a mean Charleston.

The Plastic Age

Flapper queen Clara Bow features in Wesley Ruggles’ The Plastic Age. The title alludes to easily influenced youths, removed from the safety and sanctity of home. Bow plays a vampy party girl who corrupts a college athlete with drink, smoke, dance, and — gasp — bare knees. The movie put the actress on the radar — and helped her snag the lead in the popular It two years later, which won her the nickname “It Girl.” Look for a young Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

Orchids and Ermine

Orchids and Ermine is the Jazz-Age equivalent to the bubbly, American romantic comedies of today — an updated spin on the Cinderella story. With one notable difference, though: we’d watch this one without groaning repeatedly. Fashionable silent star Colleen Moore wears the latest and greatest styles playing a switchboard operator with big dreams that unknowingly falls for a millionaire. The film was shot on location in New York City, which was unusual for the era. Look for 7-year-old Joe Yule Jr. in the part of a suave and sophisticated little person. He later found greater success under his adopted screen name: Mickey Rooney.

Walking Back

New Zealand director Rupert Julian and an uncredited Cecil B. DeMille (yes, him again) collaborated on Walking Back in 1928 — another youth gone wild story. This tale follows a hedonistic young man who doesn’t give a damn about much other than fast cars, fast women (those flappers and their dancing!), and booze. There’s a great speeding car sequence, fantastic 1920’s slang, and playfully exaggerated encounters with bank robbers and other colorful characters. Ferris Bueller’s day off seems tedious by comparison.

Bare Knees

Bobbed hair and short skirts. In twenties Hollywood, this modernist symbolism is an obvious prelude to scandal. A young flapper visits her sister in a small town, prompting the neighbors to throw a fit. Hilariously, the 1928 obscurity suggests that such an immoral lifestyle (and its ensuing fashion choices) can only meet with a tragic end. In this particular case, judgement is delivered by a burning roller coaster — which is probably one of the weirdest scenes committed to film during the Roaring Twenties.

Parisian Pleasures

The film provides a lavish backdrop for several flamboyant Josephine Baker dance numbers. Titillating poster art establishes these pleasures as the narrative’s main attraction, enticing audiences into a decadent world of Francophonic frisk. The visual delights within aren’t restricted to the flesh, either; the authentic Art Deco sets alone would make Baz Luhrmann whimper.

The Mad Whirl

The film can be summed up by one of its title cards: “Jazz is a new form of measles which makes children middle-aged at 20 and parents childish at 50.”

The Flapper

One of the earliest films on our list (1920), The Flapper was the first American movie to portray what the jazz-baby lifestyle was all about and the first film where the word “flapper” appeared. It was also written by a woman — the prolific and successful Frances Marion. Star Olive Thomas, dripping with fringe, became the style inspiration for future flappers Clara Bow and Louise Brooks.