Overview for films in Gilded Age
(Digital History ID 2956)

Hollywood’s Gilded Age is not a period of labor strife or Indian wars or racial conflict or the farmers’ revolt. It is a portrait of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia’s social elite.

Hollywood has greatly contributed to the popular impression that the Gilded Age was a glamorous time of overnight fortunes and conspicuous consumption. For Hollywood, the Gilded Age offers an ideal setting for costume dramas. The palatial mansions, exquisite gardens, and opulently furnished sitting rooms of the very rich allow movie makers to combine lavish settings with fancy formal dress. Filmmakers create images that resemble the paintings of Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargeant, and James McNeill Whistler.

But the Gilded Age’s appeal goes far beyond period costumes, ostentation mansions, and extravagent furnishings. It is a setting in which Hollywood is able to explore the kinds of emotional drama that are largely missing from films set in more recent times. The Gilded Age offers a world that is virtually the mirror image of our own time: a world of formal manners, rigidly enforced social codes, and sexual repression. It is a society in which intense feelings boil beneath a veneer of civility.

In a society that has a great deal of trouble addressing issues of social class, the films about the Gilded Age offer audiences a voyeuristic, but often highly critical, glimpse into the lives of the upper crust. Films like Age of Innocence, The Golden Bowl, The House of Mirth, and Washington Square allow viewers to vicariously enter a world of snobbery and unscrupulous social climbers, These movies also allow audiences to examine the consequences of an earlier era’s restrictive code of respectability and its double standard of sexual morality.

In films based on the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James, the Gilded Age is presented as a “gilded cage,” a narrow, stifling society in which a single breach of etiquette could lead to loss of a person’s reputation and social status. Many movies set in the Gilded Age focus on women’s emotional lives and the dilemmas that they confront. Some plots center on spirited heroines who refuse to accept their society’s restrictive values, and how their reckless passions result in disaster. Others look at the conflict between marriage for love and marriage for money.

It would be easy to complain that the only Gilded Age subjects that Hollywood cares about are the social intrigues of the wealthy. The poor certainly are notably absent from these films. But the films based on the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton do allow us to see important societal changes, notably the stunning technological changes of the era, the widening gulf between the rich and poor, and the shift in power away from older elites to the nouveau riche of robber barons, speculators, and entrepreneurs. These films reveal the casual anti-Semitism of the age, rigid class distinctions, Above all, such films allow viewers to see a society whose sensibilities and social codes are very different than our own.

Recommended Film

The Molly Maguires

Martin Ritt’s examination of class and ethnic conflict in the Pennsylvania coal fields during 1876, America’s centennial year.

Copyright Digital History 2021