Of Flappers, Hoppers, and Shifters

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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.

THE ULTIMATE 1920s IMAGE: TWO REAL-LIFE FLAPPERS CHARLESTON ON TOP OF A SKYSCRAPER.

THE ULTIMATE 1920s IMAGE: TWO REAL-LIFE FLAPPERS CHARLESTON ON TOP OF A SKYSCRAPER.

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.

COLLEEN MOORE IN HER FLAPPER PERSONA

COLLEEN MOORE IN HER FLAPPER PERSONA

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.

FLAPPERS STROLL THE BOULEVARD IN NEW YORK.

FLAPPERS STROLL THE BOULEVARD IN NEW YORK.

OLIVE THOMAS IN 'THE FLAPPER,' 1920

OLIVE THOMAS IN ‘THE FLAPPER,’ 1920

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.

MARIE PROVOST ON THE COVER OF 'FLAPPER ' MAGAZINE

MARIE PREVOST ON THE COVER OF ‘FLAPPER ‘ MAGAZINE

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.

gilda

ZIEGFELD GIRL GILDA GRAY

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.

11 Responses Of Flappers, Hoppers, and Shifters
Posted By swac44 : September 28, 2015 3:02 pm

I was lucky enough to see another recently restored Moore film this year, the delightful Synthetic Sin, at Cinefest in Syracuse, preceded by a selection of Moore’s home movies, so finally seeing Why Be Good? will be a real treat. I deeply regret not seeing the ornate dollhouse (or rather, Fairy Castle) she left to the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry when I was last in the Windy City, and I hear it’s been recently cleaned and restored, so I won’t miss out the next time.

Posted By Mitch Farish : September 28, 2015 6:51 pm

Pandora’s Box was anything but internationally acclaimed; it was a huge flop and got chopped up not just in the U. S. but all over the world for its sexual frankness. I like it, but folks back then just didn’t get it. And the Brooks bob was not original with her. Check out Rosalind Byrne, the hat check girl in Seven Chances. I like Brooks, but we shouldn’t pretend that she was anything but a moderately successful supporting player. Her fame came not in the ’20s but in the ’60s, and for her writing more than her acting. The only director who could get anything out of her onscreen was Pabst, which is a shame because she’s very good in the two films she did for him.

Posted By KC : September 28, 2015 7:39 pm

I love the photo of the real life flappers walking in NYC. So saucy. Spelling note: it’s Marie Prevost–with an ‘e’.

Posted By Dale : September 28, 2015 11:41 pm

I was smart enough to see Why Be Good at this years Classic Film Festival. It was one of my smartest choices. Up until then I only knew Colleen Moore as the owner of the massive dollhouse in Chicago.

I loved this film (and it was fun seeing “Commissioner Gordon” when Neil Hamilton was a leading man!).

Why Be Good is a nice, fun movie with a captivating star in Colleen Moore.

Posted By George : September 29, 2015 2:24 am

“The only director who could get anything out of her onscreen was Pabst, which is a shame because she’s very good in the two films she did for him.”

Brooks was only magical when Pabst directed her. In other films, she’s pleasant but bland and forgettable, just another pretty young actress. You’re right that Brooks was not a major star in the ’20s. Her fame came long after her last film (a 1938 B-Western with John Wayne).

Posted By Susan Doll : September 29, 2015 5:42 am

George and Mitch: Re: Louise Brooks

Please read carefully. I did not say that Brooks was the first to have a bob. I said her and Moore’s version of the bob (a precision cut as opposed to Thomas and Bow’s curly bob) was trend-setting.

PANDORA’S BOX is acknowledged as an important film, or historically significant film now. It is acclaimed by critics and scholars — for its Expressionist style and for Brooks’s participation. And, I don’t agree that only Pabst got a good performance out of her. I saw her as the leading lady in A Girl in Every Port by Howard Hawks, and she was quite charismatic.

Just because her stardom fizzled before it got started does not mean she did not represent an aspect of the flapper archetype.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 29, 2015 5:47 am

KC: Thanks for correcting my spelling error. I appreciate it.

Posted By Mitch Farish : September 29, 2015 1:14 pm

It’s possible that Brooks may have gone on to greater things if she had stayed in the U. S. after Beggars of Life (even in that film she was not tob-billed), but then we would not have her performances in the Pabst films. My guess though, is that Louise would have been a short-lived commodity a la Alice White in the transition from silents to talkies. One reason Pandora tanked at the box-office is that it was released when silents were on the way out. As for Colleen Moore, I wish she had the chance to do more dramas and less flapper fluff. She was a good actress even when the material was not so hot. Twinkletoes was a fine film with some very imaginative direction by Charles Brabin, and should be better known.

Posted By vp19 : October 2, 2015 3:58 am

In the late 1920s, the Dutch bob was far more identified with Moore than Brooks, as Colleen was a much bigger star — we forget that now because so many of Moore’s movies either are lost or only recently rediscovred. Louise was the darling of the 1929 equivalent of the art house, and in retrospect was her own worst enemy through rejecting an invitation to voice the talking version of “The Canary Murder Case.” By 1931, she was reduced to supporting role in films such as Carole Lombard’s “It Pays to Advertise” (although their roles in the movie were completely separate, and there’s no indication the past and future icons never met).

Posted By George : October 3, 2015 5:02 am

From what I’ve read, Brooks had a self-destructive streak (including a drinking problem and what would now be called sex addiction). Her refusal to take part in the talkie reshoots of CANARY MURDER CASE ended her days at Paramount and probably made other studios wary of her.

Posted By robbushblog : October 9, 2015 3:34 pm

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen or heard of Gilda Gray before, but after seeing that picture, I’d like to see more of her.

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