Posted by Susan Doll on September 28, 2015
Tonight on TCM, bubbly Colleen Moore stars as flapper Pert Kelly in Why Be Good?, a 1929 romantic melodrama that turned out to be the last gasp of the flapper archetype. When the stock market crashed eight months later, the mood of the nation changed, and the high-spirited frivolity of the flapper no longer seemed appropriate.
Flappers—and their spin-offs, shifters—were the first modern female archetype to emerge after women received the right to vote. They were young, urban, single women who held down steady jobs in the changing American economy. The modernization of the telephone had increased the number of households using phones, which created a demand for female operators. The rise of the department store in a consumer-oriented economy during post-WWI America resulted in the hiring of shop girls, who could relate to the stores’ best customers—women. Though they seldom made a salary that allowed them complete independence from their families, flappers felt liberated enough to enjoy urban nightlife, including jazz clubs, vaudeville shows, even speakeasies. Dressed in the flapper “uniform” of straight, knee-length dresses with rolled stockings and razor-cut bobs, these modern women drank, smoked, and experimented with sex outside of marriage.
Moral pundits and conservative social critics attacked the flapper for her assault on tradition and convention. The flapper became a controversial figure, which made her perfect for Hollywood. The movies flaunted her wicked, wicked ways during the course of a storyline but her redemption or reversal in the final scenes echoed traditional values.
Several actresses made names for themselves playing flapper characters during the Roaring 20s. The character was so prevalent that each actress perfected her own spin on the archetype. Colleen Moore’s aptly named Pert Kelly in Why Be Good? epitomized her star image. Energetic, with an expressive face, Moore was a highly physical actress who could change directions with her emotions in the blink of an eye or the turn of her mouth. Moore specialized in a version of the archetype dubbed the virgin flapper. She looked and talked the part of a “modern” but she remained a good girl at heart. In Why Be Good?, Pert reassures her worried mother that she only acts the part of a flapper, noting she would be disgraced if her friends found out that she was really a good girl when the lights went down. Pert’s contradictory nature actually reflects an important point in the film. Her wishy-washy beau is convinced by his wealthy father that poor Pert is promiscuous. Junior brings her to a country inn that is famous for hanky-panky among its unmarried patrons. Junior wants to find out if she has been there before with other men. Pert is insulted at his attempt to test her morality, and she rails at the double standard between men and women regarding sex. “It’s men who demand the kissing and spooning,” she says. “You wouldn’t like me if I wore long skirts and mittens and sat at home . . . .You men! You insist a girl being just what you want—and then you bawl her out for being it . . . .What I do and what I wear is because you fool men demand it.” Colleen Moore’s version of the flapper reflected the clash of values created by the emancipation of women.
Though her voice was considered suitable for talkies, Moore did not have much luck with her early sync-sound films, especially after divorcing her producer husband. She discovered she did not like making talking films, a process that was more regimented than making silents. When she remarried in 1937, she ceased making movies, opting to stay at home with her family.
Moore had secured her flapper image in 1923 in Flaming Youth, but the movie version of this archetype likely originated with Olive Thomas. Thomas, a former Ziegfeld girl and risqué dancer, starred in The Flapper in 1920, though her character’s hair was pinned and not bobbed, and she choked when taking a drag on her cigarette. Prior to Thomas, Marie Proevost had appeared on a number of magazine covers as a flapper. She eventually landed the cover of the first issue of the short-lived Flapper magazine. Prevost became an actress who also survived the transition from silent films to talkies, appearing in 121 films between 1915 and 1936, including several in which she portrayed a flapper. Like Moore, Prevost did not survive her flapper image. After her mother died in a car accident in 1926, she began drinking heavily and gained weight. She died in 1937 of heart failure.
In retrospect, Clara Bow is often identified as the ultimate flapper. Unlike Moore, her characters were sexually provocative, possessing “It,” that indescribable combination of sex appeal, pep, and charisma. Bow’s wild off-screen lifestyle solidified her onscreen persona, while Moore led a fairly scandal-free existence for most of her career. Bow’s first flapper movie was Black Oxen, released six weeks after Moore’s Flaming Youth. Pitted against each other in the press, the two rivals were anything but friendly. Appearing together in Painted People, Bow and Moore openly sparred on the set. Bow reportedly wanted Moore’s part, and, in retaliation, Colleen prevented the It Girl from getting her share of close-ups. Like Moore and Provost, Bow’s career ended shortly after her “running wild” roles.
Like Colleen Moore, Louise Brooks sported a trend-setting, precision bob, and, like Clara Bow, her characters were sexually frank. Copping a freewheeling attitude, Brooks was the model of the defiant modern women, who smoked, drank, and engaged in sexual antics more out of rebellion than a desire for fun. Unlike the other flappers, Brooks elevated the archetype by portraying her in German director G.W. Pabst’s internationally acclaimed Pandora’s Box.
Completely forgotten is Gilda Gray, who made the shimmy one of the most popular dances in the 1920s. A saloon singer, Gray shimmied in night clubs, vaudeville and finally the Ziegfeld Follies. Known as the Shimmy Queen, Gray’s expertise at popular dances was the basis for her modern-woman image. She appeared in a variety of films between 1919 and 1936, often playing trendy dancers, or “hoppers” in the slang of the era.
Joan Crawford also shimmied her way onto the big screen as a flapper, particularly in Our Dancing Daughters. Crawford was always a fashionista, and her bone structure and slim figure were perfectly suited to the short hairstyles and fringy, thigh-skimming dresses. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was considered an expert on the topic, wrote that she was “doubtless the best example of the flapper.” Crawford was one of the few actresses to move on from her flapper image; she not only outlasted her peers by decades but she gained greater stardom after the flapper era.
So, let’s roll back to the clock to the Roaring 20s. Don’t be a dud or a wurp. Turn on the whangdoodle, and tune into TCM this evening at 8:00pm to catch Why Be Good? It’s the cat’s meow.
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