Great 1920s-set films

Ella arrives in Hollywood – but the competition was a scam!
Are you missing the Great Gatsby fervour? (I'm not, I love the 1920s but it really made me sick of all things Jazz Age!) Do you want more 1920s-set films? Here are my favourite films from or set in the 1920s. Obviously the list is limited to things I’ve seen, so if you can add to it, please do so in the comments.

Films from the 1920s
Ella Cinders
Flapper superstar Colleen Moore plays the poor girl who ends up in big movies after winning a (scam) competition, winning the heart of her friend the milkman on the way. You might have seen stills of Colleen and not understood why she was such a celeb in her day as she's not as obviously glamorous as a lot of silent stars; this film really highlights her charm and gift for comedy.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
I’m probably biassed by having seen this German Expressionist movie on the big screen, with live accompaniment from Minima, but it really is eerie and unsettling. Where does the madness really lie, in the subject of the story or its teller?

Have no doubts, Betty-Lou WILL get her man
Clara Bow shines as Betty Lou Spence,  the shopgirl who falls for her boss, played by dashing Antonio Moreno. Luckily she has that indefinable quality, ‘it’, and he wants it! But the path of true love never runs smooth in this 1920s romantic comedy as both have to overcome misunderstandings and rivals for each other's affection.

The Ring
One of Hitchcock's British silents. The Lodger, starring Ivor Novello, 'the Welsh Valentino', at his gurtest lush, is probably a better film, but I'd opt for The Ring if you want a look at the 1920s, British-style. It's the tale of a fairground boxer who hits the big time, and takes up with a woman who Does Him Wrong. When he becomes successful, he gets a plush flat and throws parties... and you might be surprised to see how deco it isn't.

A British silent starring two big American names, Gilda Grey and Anna May Wong. Nightclub dancer Mabel loses her job and her boyfriend to ambitious Shosho, who works her way from poverty to the big time – and to tragedy. I’ve written a complete review of Piccadilly.

Films set in the 1920s
The Cat’s Meow
William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies (played beautifully by Kirsten Dunst, who captures both flirtatiousness and devotion), Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard, brilliant in his serious role) and some other well-known figures take a pleasure trip on Hearst’s yacht – but jealousy and betrayal leads to tragedy. Based on Hollywood fact and decades-old rumours. I’ve done a full review of The Cat’s Meow.

Bullets over Broadway
Woody Allen has a genuine love of the period between the wars, and some of his best films are set then. Bullets Over Broadway is my favourite, although Purple Rose of Cairo and Sweet and Lowdown are both excellent too. In Bullets Over Broadway, a gangster’s moll (Meg Tilly) wants to be an actress, so her lover ensures that an actress she will be – even though playwright (John Cusack) is desperate to seduce a stage grande dame (Dianne Wiest) by making her the star of the show. Meanwhile, the moll’s reluctant minder (Chazz Palmintieri) turns out to have an absolute gift for writing plays, and bitterly resents his charge ruining his dialogue with her bad acting. It’s hilarious. A great film.

Bugsy Malone
Yes, it's a film full of kids. I loved this when I was little, and I still love Bugsy Malone today. A child's version of the prohibition era, with gangsters taking one another down with machine guns firing whipped cream before racing off in pedal getaway cars, speakeasies, and Bugsy falling for would-be actress and singer Blousey Brown. (I want Blousey's wardrobe. Seriously.) It also has a fantastic soundtrack.

You will note that I haven’t included Some Like It Hot or Singin’ in the Rain. I love those films, and both are set in the 1920s, but they simply don’t say 1920s to me. I also haven’t included favourite films with a 1920s-set section, such as It’s A Wonderful Life (which suffers from the ‘can’t tell it’s meant to be the 20s’ problem anyway).

If you like old films, don't miss Penny Dreadful's weekly film roundup of what's on UK freeview channels. Even if you can't get UK freeview, you might well see something you want to look up on DVD!


  1. OO I haven't heard of a lot of these, I'll be sure to look out for them! I think the earliest films in my film collection at the moment are early 1930s. I'd be particularly intrigued about the first one, I prefer comic actresses to ones who just pose!

    P xx

  2. I reaaaaaaaaaaaaaally need to watch more old films!

  3. Oh thank you for linking to me, much appreciated! I didn't much like The Cat's Meow, though the costumes were fab. I need to do more genuine 20s films watching, its such a shame they don't show them on telly more often x


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