First came the movies, and soon after came the movie stars. Patriots still dispute which nation invented cinema (France is a leading contender), but everyone knows which nation created the kind of films that conquered the world: America. Hollywood films gave the world a new way of dreaming in public, and a new kind of fame.
Mary Pickford and Clara Bow were the imaginary girlfriends of every lonely man with a spare nickel; Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino made millions of feminine hearts flutter; and a young expat cockney called Charlie Chaplin became the most famous person on the planet.
Though a handsome fellow, Chaplin was not, strictly speaking, glamorous. His appeal was in finding laughter at the bottom of the social ladder. Buster Keaton, more suave than Chaplin’s tramp, had a similarly defiant, lower-class appeal. But their fellow actors were not merely glamorous in their own right: they came to define what was meant by the word ‘glamour’. Up until the First World War, rich Americans – the kind Edith Wharton wrote about brilliantly in The Age of Innocence – had usually looked back to the Old World for their ideals of the beautiful life. But after the war, as the US economy boomed and its young people began to adopt hedonism and frivolity as a permanent way of life, it seemed as if America, thoroughly modern, was one great, wild yet elegant party. And the battered Old World looked on in curiosity; envy, even.
If you wanted a single moment to encapsulate that 1920s party spirit, you could hardly do better than reread The Great Gatsby,
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s bestseller about a dazzling young man whose fortune has a rotten heart. Lawns on a summer night; slender young women in gowns and pearls; Gatsby’s prodigious, tear-jerking collection of shirts; voices that sound like money: this is the enduring image of the so-called Jazz Age – a term that Fitzgerald himself made current with his short-story collection of 1922, Tales of the Jazz Age.
Jazz itself was the inescapable soundtrack of the Great American Spree. Within a couple of decades, the musical form had spread and mutated from its humble origins in New Orleans – hometown of Louis Armstrong, one of its undisputed masters – and spread to Chicago, New York and then Europe. Fitzgerald and his pals mainly listened to the diluted, paleface form of jazz played by bands like Paul Whiteman’s, but before long almost everyone began to recognise that the real music was achieving unprecedented levels of complexity and depth in the hands of such composers as Duke Ellington. When Ellington’s band toured France, one writer said that his music was not merely a new kind of pleasure, but a new reason for staying alive.
As is usual when a cultural revolution is in full bloom, society’s elders watched the frenzied play with suspicion. Young women (‘flappers’) behaved in ways that were formerly the prerogative of harlots, actresses and other dangerous females. They wore make-up! They smoked! They wore their skirts short and their hair shorter! (The ‘bob’ was the hairstyle that separated the stodgy from the sparkling.) And they drank, with a thirst every bit as powerful as that of the forces of Prohibition. This was the generation that invented the cocktail – and Americans still make the best cocktails.
Like all parties, it had to come to an end, and it did so suddenly with the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The 1930s were a hard time in America, though you might not think so from watching the decade’s popular films, which impoverished people flocked to for a few hours of delicious escape. Movies were talkies now, and they had music. Jazz set off a branch called swing. A new type of movie comedy evolved: screwball – witty, sexy and usually detailing the frolics of the rich. One of the finest is Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story, named after the millionaire’s playground in Florida. It was as though the Crash never happened.
And when America grew rich again after another terrible war, it consolidated its status as the world’s leading supplier of entertainment and pleasurable fantasy: rock ’n’ roll, television, comic books…
Today, other economies are on the rise, but not even Bollywood can challenge Hollywood on the global stage. America defined modern glamour 90 years ago, and there are no signs that the American definition is going to change any time soon.
Constellation of Genius by Kevin Jackson is published by Hutchinson.