Let’s Get FilmStruck


While many people have been quickly abandoning physical media in favor of streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, classic cinema enthusiasts have largely been left out. With a few exceptions, most mainstream streaming services typically favor more modern movies, meaning fans of classic film have mostly been forced to stick to their DVDs, blu-rays, and even VHS tapes if they want to watch something made prior to the 1970s. But FilmStruck fills a major gap that had existed in the world of movie streaming services.

FilmStruck is a streaming service curated by Turner Classic Movies that launched in November 2016. Targeting fans of classic cinema, foreign films, and cult movies, FilmStruck features a wide range of movies from the Criterion Collection, Janus Films, Kino Lorber, Milestone, and more. I signed up for the service the day it became available for Roku players, so by now, I’ve been using it for several months and have had plenty of time to get familiar with all that it has to offer. And I can safely say that it is, by far, my favorite movie streaming service.

As a FilmStruck subscriber, you have your choice of two subscription tiers: the basic tier which gives you access to the main FilmStruck service and a more expensive one that gives you access to the Criterion Channel in addition to the main FilmStruck section. The whole idea of being able to stream movies from the Criterion Collection was one of the things that interested me most about FilmStruck, so naturally, I went with the option to get the Criterion Channel.

Regardless of which subscription service you choose, you’ll have a huge variety of movies and extra features to enjoy. While you can always just search for a specific movie, actor, director, or genre, one of the things I love most about FilmStruck is the fact that movies are also grouped together based on a common theme. This is such a great way to discover new movies. In the time that I’ve been using it, I’ve seen FilmStruck do spotlights with themes like punk films, films by Powell & Pressburger, Howard Hawks screwball comedies, movies made by Vivien Leigh before Gone With the Wind, LGBTQ movies, British noir, and directorial debuts, just to name a few. There’s also a Cinema Passport series which highlights movies made in different countries around the world. It’s worth noting that all the spotlights I just mentioned were/are available on the basic FilmStruck service, so even if you don’t go for the Criterion-level subscription, you’re still getting a lot of amazing programming. In addition to the movies, some titles have extra features such as introductions, scene commentaries, trailers, and featurettes.

With the Criterion Channel, you’re able to stream a selection of movies released by the Criterion Collection, complete with all the bonus features included on the DVD/blu-ray release. If you’re a big fan of Criterion Collection discs like I am and often find yourself wishing you could check a disc out before buying it, this lets you have a chance to do just that.

The Criterion Channel also features a lot of original content and special features not available on the basic FilmStruck service. My personal favorite is the weekly Friday Double Feature, which suggests a pairing of movies that share a common theme. This is something I never even knew I wanted in a streaming service until FilmStruck came along. But now every Friday when I get home from work, one of the first things I do is check to see what the new double feature is because there’s a very good chance it could be what I’ll end up watching that night. They also do something similar on Tuesdays where they pair a short film and a feature-length movie.

Like most other streaming services, movies are only available on FilmStruck for a limited amount of time. But I’ve consistently been impressed by how frequently new movies are added to the service. I also greatly appreciate the fact that both basic FilmStruck and the Criterion Channel have a list of the movies that will leaving soon. I’m sure many of you have experienced the disappointment of adding a movie or show to your watchlist on other services, only to have it disappear from the service without warning, so this is a big help. There’s also a list of movies that have recently been added, which is great. On the main FilmStruck section, there’s even a list of movies that are recommended for you.

On the whole, I really don’t have any complaints about FilmStruck. I’m extremely happy with the variety of movies it offers, I love the original features, and the themed collections are very interesting. Perhaps the only criticism I have of it is that I find it easier to browse its contents by either going to the website or by using the mobile app, but I can also say the same thing about Netflix. All in all, this is the streaming service I’d been waiting for. I’m still a huge fan of physical media, but FilmStruck is an excellent way to discover movies, whether you’re just starting to explore these sorts of movies or you’ve been a fan of these sorts of movies for years.

Update: Very shortly after publishing this review, it was announced that FilmStruck was partnering with Warner Brothers and that all content from the Warner Archive Instant streaming platform would be moving over to FilmStruck. They also launched the new TCM Select collection, which features a rotating selection of major golden age classics like Casablanca, Now Voyager, and And American in Paris. Like watching on TCM, movies in this collection feature an introduction from Ben Mankiewicz, as well as other related video clips from the TCM archives.

These new features and partnerships have already brought a lot of valuable content to the service. Today, I came home from work to see a great collection of Bette Davis movies had been added, as well as all the Astaire/Rogers movies. These are all available on the main FilmStruck platform, so this is another great example of how much amazing stuff you get access to even with the basic subscription option.


Hot Toddy: The True Story of Hollywood’s Most Sensational Murder

Hot Toddy Book CoverWhen actress Thelma Todd was found dead on December 16, 1935, the circumstances surrounding her death would become a subject of much debate that would last for over 80 years. Did she commit suicide? Was it an accident? Or was she the victim of a crime?

Although there already had been a lot of speculation about how Todd might have died, the 1989 publication of Hot Toddy: The True Story of Hollywood’s Most Sensational Murder by Andy Edmonds brought that speculation to a new level by alleging that Todd had been the victim of a mob hit orchestrated by none other than Lucky Luciano, the major mob leader.

But is it true? Was one of Hollywood’s most famous unsolved mysteries orchestrated by one of the most notorious gangsters of all time? It’s hard to say. To this day, Thelma Todd’s death is officially considered an accident. But in the time since the publication of Hot Toddy, the Luciano theory has certainly become one of the most popular theories. And it’s hard to not be at least a little intrigued by it. As someone who has long been fascinated by this case, I know I was, so I’d had this book on my list of books to read for a long time.

Hot Toddy covers the entire course of Thelma Todd’s life, from her youth in Lawrence, Massachusetts to her time as a student at an acting school run by Paramount, her rise to Hollywood stardom, and her mysterious death. Although there had long been rumors that Thelma Todd had been murdered, Edmonds’ book stood out because she had anonymous sources who claimed to have been with Thelma shortly before her death.

In 1991, Hot Toddy was turned into a made-for-TV movie by the name of White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd, starring Loni Anderson as Thelma Todd. Now, that movie may eventually get a review of its own, but as I read Hot Toddy, I couldn’t help but think, “Yeah, this totally reads like something that would eventually get turned into a made-for-TV movie starring Loni Anderson.”

Edmonds definitely had a specific image of Thelma in mind when she wrote the book. She really tries her best to set Thelma up to be a product of her father’s shady connections and her mother’s ambitions, desperately fighting to find something in her life that’s truly her own. Add Hollywood stardom, men, booze, pills, and gangsters to the mix and Hot Toddy gets pretty tawdry pretty quickly.

A few years ago, Michelle Morgan published another book on the Thelma Todd case titled The Ice Cream Blonde. Danny of pre-code.com pointed out that much of the biographical information in Morgan’s book comes from fan magazine interviews and letters to fans, which likely contained sanitized, studio-approved statements. And that’s a very valid point. But ultimately, I found Morgan’s style of writing much more palatable since she never seemed to have an agenda or an angle she wanted to work.

I will say that Edmonds’ book goes into more detail about Thelma’s pre-Hollywood life, which I did enjoy for the most part. I found the bits about her time at the acting school particularly interesting, since the whole concept of that school was a great example of how the film industry was trying to rehab its image after some noteworthy scandals.

But the big thing Hot Toddy is known for is claims about Luciano. As I mentioned, Thelma Todd’s death is still officially considered an accident, so this book certainly did not solve the case once and for all. How much you can believe it depends on how much trust you’re willing to place in her anonymous sources. I really wasn’t a big fan of the extended conversations that are detailed in the book purely because I have a hard time believing that any eyewitness to those conversations would remember them in such detail over 50 years later.

Aside from the Luciano claims, it’s worth mentioning that some reviews from Hot Toddy‘s initial publication pointed out mistakes in some of the book’s details. One review in the LA Times cited a basic geographical error in one of her claims. Anita Garvin, another actress with ties to the restaurant industry and friend of Thelma’s, was interviewed for Hot Toddy. A few years after its publication, Garvin was interviewed for a Mabel Normand fansite and had this to say about it:

AG: I swore that after what they wrote about Thelma Todd, you know “Hot Toddy,” I swore after I was interviewed on the thing I would never do this again: because they screwed the whole thing up! They were absolutely out of their minds. There wasn’t anything in that book that was worth five minutes of her time. What they did to Thelma Todd! “Hot Toddy” they liked the title, but I could see through whoever wrote it. (groans) Oh God!

WTS: That was Andy Edmonds.

AG: I know Andy Edmonds. But I knew Thelma very well, and she was straight laced. She never went through all these things. And she (Edmonds) even got my husband and I – had our business and things – she got that all wrong. It was at the old Monmart on Hollywood Blvd. near Highland. She had us on out on the strip someplace before there was a strip. She got everything backwards. And she interviewed me and I gave her the straight scoop on Thelma. But I think she just decided she knew because she probably liked the title “Hot Toddy” and thought she was going to make it “Hot Toddy!”

If you have an interest in the Thelma Todd case, Hot Toddy is a must-read if only for the fact that it’s the most well-known book about it. Or if you’re looking for something to read that’s a bit on the tawdry side, you might enjoy Hot Toddy. Regardless of why you read it, just be prepared to go into it ready to take a lot of its claims with a grain of salt.

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

Dawson City poster

It’s estimated that about 90% of all films made prior to 1929 are lost and many of those are very likely gone forever. With those kinds of odds, it’s no wonder that classic film fans get so excited over news that a print of a thought-to-be-lost film has been found. But if there’s anything more exciting than finding a print of one lost film, it’s finding a whole stash of them, and that’s exactly what happened in Dawson City in 1978.

At its peak during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, Dawson City was home to over 30,000 people. One year later, that population had dropped to 8,000 and today, the city’s population is approximately 1,300. But throughout all the ups and downs the city has encountered over the years, one thing has remained consistent: entertainment has remained an important part of the town.

Dawson City was hardly the only city to have its own movie theaters, but what makes Dawson City unique is that, because of its location, it was at the end of the distribution line for films and newsreels. Returning films after screening them would have been very expensive for the distributor and, at the time, it wasn’t widely believed that film had any long-term value. So when a movie arrived in Dawson City, it likely stayed there. Since there was nothing else to do with them, the city eventually became overwhelmed by reels of film. Physically storing them all became difficult and every once in a while, people would hold bonfires fueled by excess film and heaps of film would simply be thrown into the Yukon River to be carried away. At one point in 1929, hundreds of film reels were put into a former swimming pool, which was then boarded up to be used as a hockey rink.

The film reels that ended up under the hockey rink remained there until 1978 when the lot was being leveled. What ended up being unearthed at that site was a priceless treasure trove of movie reels and newsreels from the early 20th century. It was a find Vanity Fair dubbed “the King Tut’s tomb of silent-era cinema.” Many of the films discovered there were believed to have been lost and included some of the biggest names of the silent era, such as Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle, and D.W. Griffith. Since the highly-flammable nitrate prints had been stored in permafrost, they weren’t prone to spontaneously catching on fire the way reels stored through more conventional means were.

Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time isn’t a documentary solely about the big film discovery; it chronicles the entire history of the town. Morrison primarily uses footage uncovered in Dawson City to tell the story of the city from its earliest days to the height of the Gold Rush to the modern day. Appropriately, most of the documentary is presented similarly to a silent film, without narration and a haunting musical score. If you’re a fan of silent film, being able to see some of this footage is a real treat. Not only is it exciting to see it at all, it’s absolutely fascinating to see the footage used so imaginatively.

While the Dawson City discovery included priceless finds involving major Hollywood stars, the newsreels they found there are every bit as important. Some of these newsreels include footage of well-known historical events such as the 1919 World Series, the year of the infamous Black Sox scandal. Speaking as someone who doesn’t follow baseball, or any other sport for that matter, being able to see that footage was pretty amazing. Not only do you have the chance to see some of the players involved in the scandal, it also gives you a chance to see how fans would keep up to date with games in an era before ESPN was a mainstay in bars around the country.

Dawson City: Frozen Time had been a movie I really wanted to see at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival, but I ended up not being able to make it. Everyone I had talked to who did see it described it as a fever dream, and that’s a pretty accurate way to describe it. It’s haunting, it’s surreal, and it’s absolutely incredible. If you’re like me and love hearing the stories of how lost films are uncovered, Dawson City: Frozen Time is well worth your time. I’m really glad I finally had a chance to see it.

Raiders of the Lost Films: London After Midnight (1927)

Lon Chaney London After Midnight

In 1927, Lon Chaney was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, having made several on-screen triumphs in movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Oliver Twist, and The Phantom of the Opera, which remain some of the most celebrated performances and films of the silent era. After having starred alongside Norma Shearer and John Gilbert in 1924’s He Who Gets Slapped, the first film ever fully produced by the then newly-formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Chaney began working under contract to MGM the following year and would remain at the studio for the final five years of his career. During his time at MGM, he starred in several of the most memorable movies of his career, including two versions of The Unholy ThreeTell It to the MarinesThe Unknown, and Laugh, Clown, Laugh. But while many of the movies he made at MGM are still available and are shown on Turner Classic Movies, perhaps the most notorious of them all is one we can’t see: London After Midnight.

No series about lost films would be complete without discussion of London After Midnight. 90 years after its release, it is now widely regarded as the holy grail of lost films. The last known print of the film was destroyed in an MGM vault fire during the 1960s. (There seems to be some debate over whether the fire happened in 1965 or 1967.) The vault when up in flames when an electrical fire broke out, destroying London After Midnight along with original prints of several other early MGM titles, including movies made prior to MGM’s 1924 formation, some Our Gang shorts, original versions of Tom and Jerry cartoons, the color sequence from The Broadway Melody, the uncut version of Laurel and Hardy’s Blotto, and The Divine Woman, the only lost Greta Garbo film.

London After Midnight Lobby Card

In London After Midnight, Lon Chaney plays Scotland Yard inspector Edward C. Burke, who is called to investigate the death of Roger Balfour. Balfour’s friend, James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall), is convinced Balfour would never kill himself and Burke initially has his doubts about Hamlin’s nephew Arthur (Conrad Nagel), but since a suicide note is found, in which Balfour asks his daughter Lucille (Marceline Day) to forgive him, the case isn’t investigated any further.

Five years later, Balfour’s former home is being inhabited by a bizarre looking man with sharp teeth and a beaver hat (also played by Lon Chaney), along with two corpse-like female companions. When the new maid (Polly Moran) arrives, she’s convinced they’re vampires and directly responsible for the death of Balfour. Burke and Hamlin then realize the lease for the new, odd tenants is signed by none other than Balfour. After Lucille reports hearing the voice of her father calling to her, Burke and Hamlin discover that Balfour’s corpse is missing from its tomb and when they look inside the house, they see what appears to be Balfour having a conversation with the man in the beaver hat. At this point, Burke decides to use hypnosis to solve the case once and for all.

Upon its release in 1927, London After Midnight became one of the highest grossing films of the year. Out of all the films Chaney and Browning made together, London After Midnight was the most financially successful. Despite all of the hype that’s built around the movie over the years, it was hardly hailed as a masterpiece. Initial reviews were pretty mixed. Variety said of it:

“Will add nothing to Chaney’s prestige as a trouper, nor increase the star’s box office value. With Chaney’s name in lights, however, this picture, any picture with Chaney, means a strong box office draw. Young, Browning and Chaney have made a good combination in the past but the story on which this production is based is not of the quality that results in broken house records.”

The New York Times wasn’t terribly impressed with it, either:

“It is a somewhat incoherent narrative, which, however, gives Lon Chaney an opportunity to turn up in an uncanny disguise and also to manifest his powers as Scotland Yard’s expert hypnotist. You are therefore treated to close-ups of Mr. Chaney’s rolling orbs, which, fortunately, do not exert their influence on the audience.”

The New Yorker also had issues with the film’s plot:

“Mr. Browning can create pictorial terrors and Lon Chaney can get himself up in a completely repulsive manner, but both their efforts are wasted when the story makes no sense.”

In the 2000 documentary Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces, interviewees who had seen London After Midnight also commented they felt it wasn’t that great of a movie. Historian H.A.V. Bulleid stated that he thought people would be very disappointed if they actually saw London After Midnight, while Mary Hunt, a moviegoer in the 1920s, said it was so fantastic and unreal it couldn’t be taken seriously, but the makeup was remarkable. Forest Ackerman seemed to be the most enthusiastic about it, saying that he believed Groucho Marx modeled his slouching walk after the walk of the man in the beaver hat.

Lon Chaney  Man in Beaver Hat London After MidnightHad prints of London After Midnight remained in circulation over the years, is it possible that the film might have eventually undergone a critical re-evaluation at some point? Maybe, but at this point, it hardly seems relevant to even ponder it. The fact that it’s been missing for about 50 years now has helped cement its legacy as one of Hollywood’s most notorious movies in a way that no amount of praise from film critics ever could.

It’s not hard to understand why London After Midnight is such a sought-after movie. This is a movie that involved two of the biggest icons of the horror genre: Lon Chaney and Tod Browning. Don’t get me wrong — finding any lost Lon Chaney movie at all would be huge news in the film world. But a lost film that involves these two legends together makes it that much of a bigger deal. Even if it’s not such a great movie, it’s awfully hard not to at least be intrigued by the idea of getting to see Lon Chaney in a double role. And Chaney wasn’t the only one to have a double role, so to speak. Beyond his role as director, Tod Browning also wrote The Hypnotist, the short story the movie was based on.

Chaney and Browning are hardly the only noteworthy people to be involved with London After Midnight, either. It also starred some other actors whose names are likely to be familiar to fans of silent films and early talkies, like Marceline Day, Conrad Nagel, and Polly Moran. So whether you’re a fan of classic film in general or are just a big fan of horror movies in particular, London After Midnight truly occupies an important place in film history.

Another aspect of the London After Midnight mythology is the fact that the film became entangled in a murder case. In London’s Hyde Park on October 23, 1928, a man named Robert Williams was arrested for the murder of Julia Magnan. Upon his arrest, he told police that he’d done it because she was teasing him and that in an epileptic fit, he’d been taunted by a vision of Lon Chaney as he appeared in London After Midnight. Although Williams was initially sentenced to death, his sentence was later changed to allow him to serve his sentence at an asylum instead. So as if it weren’t enough that London After Midnight is famous for being lost, the fact that it was once blamed for driving a man to madness brings a whole different level of intrigue to the whole thing.

Although London After Midnight is not known to exist in its original form, it is still possible to get an idea of what it was like. In 2002, Turner Classic Movies produced a reconstructed version of the movie following the original script and using existing film stills. This version runs about 45 minutes and still occasionally airs on the channel. It was also included as a bonus feature in the Lon Chaney Collection released on the TCM Archive label in 2003, but that set now appears to be out of print. It was also remade in 1935 as The Mark of the Vampire, starring Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi.

The important thing to remember is that although London After Midnight is now considered a lost film, there is still hope that a copy of it may be discovered someday. Over the years, there have been numerous rumors about prints of it being found, but unfortunately, those have turned out to be unsubstantiated. But there are several other cases of thought-to-be-lost films being found in archives and private collections. Even among the titles believed to be casualties of the 1965/1967 MGM vault fire alone, copies of some of those have turned up over the years. One of the most noteworthy examples would be 1922’s The Toll of the Sea, the second Technicolor feature to be made in Hollywood. Although it was thought to have been lost in the fire, the original camera negative was eventually found, minus the final two reels, and was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in 1985, complete with newly-shot footage to replicate the missing footage. Perhaps, one day we will be able to tell a similar tale for London After Midnight.

Joan Crawford: My Way of Life

Joan Crawford My Way of LifeI’ve been a big Joan Crawford fan for many years and while I’ve managed to see many of her movies, until recently, I’d only heard about a book she published in 1971 titled My Way of Life. Every once in a while, I’d come across an article listing some of the more over the top quotes and lifestyle tips, which helped the book earn something of a cult following in the decades since its publication. Now, I love Joan Crawford and I love kooky lifestyle tips, so I was intrigued.

Recently, Jessica of Comet Over Hollywood did a review of the book and mentioned that an audiobook version recorded by Joan was posted on YouTube so of course, I had to check it out. I went in expecting major outrageousness, but you know what? I was actually kind of underwhelmed by it in that respect. In fact, I genuinely liked it.

That’s not to say it isn’t over the top in some respects. Of course its; it was written by a woman who lived most of her life in the public eye. Joan Crawford is very famously quoted as saying, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door,” and she certainly never pretends to be the girl next door here. She lived her life on a bigger scale than most people ever will and the advice she gives reflects that, but that’s going to be the case with any given celebrity lifestyle book. Nobody expects readers of these types of books to take every bit of advice literally. But what you can do is find ways to make their advice work for your life and Joan actually had some legitimately good tips.

My favorite section of the book dealt with fashion and style. She was a big believer in the idea that everyone should develop their own personal style that makes them feel confident and suits their lifestyle. Not everyone is going to share Joan’s enthusiasm for hats, but you can’t really argue with those core fashion beliefs. It was also really interesting to hear her talk about how hard it was for her to buy off-the-rack clothing. One might think that designers would be lining up to get someone like Joan Crawford in their clothes, but she said she was never able to just walk into a designer’s shop and buy things off the rack because the available sizes were just too small for her. Now, I was expecting a lot of things from My Way of Life, but hearing that Joan struggled with stores not carrying clothes in her size was not one of them. In fact, that may have been the single most relatable thing Joan Crawford has ever said.

Compared to some of the things you hear about the lifestyles of today’s celebrities, a lot of Joan’s advice is actually sensible in comparison. When I got to the part about diet and exercise, I thought that’s where a lot of over the top stuff would come up, but that was not the case. While she was clearly disciplined about what she ate and how much she ate, she called out extreme dieting as being unhealthy. In the section about beauty, she doesn’t advocate going out and buying the most expensive products or go on about how she only uses the most exclusive products. Instead, she gives tips on making facial masks at home. Now that we have magazines full of stories about the drastic measures celebrities go to to lose weight and the outrageous amounts they pay for beauty products and treatments, it was interesting to hear a celebrity take a more practical approach to things.

Another reason I feel like it’s just too easy to make fun of My Way of Life is because a lot of it seems outdated by today’s standards. Again, of course it does — it was written nearly 50 years ago. In some ways, it’s very clear that this is from another era, but in other ways, it showed Joan to be rather progressive in her views on what women could be. It was published at a time when many women were stay-at-home mothers and housewives, but she certainly believed that women could succeed in the workforce and that women should have interests and lives outside of their husbands. And while she had strong opinions about pants and what body type you need to have to be able to wear them, she talks about some beauty trends that are hugely popular today, like contouring and microdermabrasion.

Even if you’re not into her lifestyle advice, if you’re a fan of Joan’s, you’re bound to love getting to hear stories about her life and career. My personal favorite was her story about the time she invited Greta Garbo to join her for tea in her dressing room at MGM and the first thing she did was try to impress Garbo with the fact that her dressing room had its own bathroom. Trust me, you’ll want to listen to the audiobook recording to hear Joan tell that story.

All in all, I was surprised to find myself honestly enjoying My Way of Life. So I guess that makes me part of its fan base, but I don’t seem to be in it for the same reasons other people are. While it has its moments of being over the top, it’s really silly to criticize it for that when it’s written by someone whose life was over the top. I wanted to hear about things like how she brought 37 pieces of luggage when she went to London to film Trog; I would’ve been let down if she said she just put a few things in a bag at the last minute. By far, the most shocking thing about it is a rape joke she makes. So aside from some of the more obviously dated bits, this really wasn’t the campy riot I’d been led to believe it was by some other articles I’d read about it. As Joan famously said, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.” And if you want campy Joan Crawford fun, watching Trog is a better bet. But it definitely is an interesting and entertaining book.

What’s on TCM: August 2017

Marilyn Monroe Beach

Happy August, everyone! August can only mean one thing on TCM — Summer Under the Stars. If you’re not familiar with Summer Under the Stars, each day in August, TCM will be featuring the work from a certain actor or actress. I always look forward to this because it’s such a great way to discover new movies and maybe even gain appreciation for certain stars.

Looking through this year’s schedule, I’m very happy with the lineup. While there are some traditional crowd-pleasers like Cary Grant, John Wayne,  Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor, there are also quite a few stars who haven’t been featured in a while. I’m particularly looking forward to Gene Kelly, James Cagney, Lon Chaney, Franchot Tone, Angela Lansbury, Rosalind Russell, and Ann Harding days.

Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the schedule.


Raiders of the Lost Films: Flaming Youth (1923)

Colleen Moore 1923 Flaming Youth

It’s often said that Hollywood has a fixation on youth, and this hardly a new trend. Throughout the entire history of American cinema, there have consistently been actors and actresses who shoot to superstardom for being the personification of youth.

As time moves progresses, so does the image of youth. During the 1910s, Mary Pickford was one of the most famous women in the world, celebrated for playing little girls in movies like Poor Little Rich Girl and The Little Princess. Although Pickford was well into her twenties at the time, the spirit and charisma she brought to those young characters won over audiences all over the world. Her long, curled hair became a symbol of the wholesome innocence of her characters.

By the early 1920s, things were beginning to change. After the end of World War I, many young women, known as flappers, were turning their backs on more conservative values by wearing dresses with higher hemlines, smoking, drinking, listening to jazz, going out dancing, working, dating, and generally having a whole lot of fun. Flappers also famously wore short bobbed hair styles; the antithesis of Mary Pickford’s long curls.

Colleen Moore in 1923's Flaming YouthIt was only a matter of time before Hollywood started capitalizing on this shift in youth culture. 1920’s The Flapper, starring Olive Thomas, was the first movie to focus on flappers and eventually, actresses like Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Joan Crawford would also become icons for playing characters that embody the lifestyle. But before all of them, there was Colleen Moore in 1923’s Flaming Youth.

Flaming Youth was based on the novel of the same name by Samuel Hopkins Adams, also published in 1923. The novel quickly caused an uproar over its uncensored, sexually frank take on the flapper lifestyle and the lives of young women. By the time he wrote Flaming Youth, Adams had already built up a reputation as a journalist and novelist and didn’t want the salacious content of Flaming Youth to overshadow his other works, so he published it under the pseudonym Warner Fabian. (The Harvey Girls, The Gorgeous Hussy, and It Happened One Night were also based on works written by Adams.) The book caused such a stir that F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote a letter to Adams saying that he wished he had been the one to write Flaming Youth.

As is the case with so many book-to-film adaptations, Flaming Youth isn’t completely faithful to its source material, but that didn’t stop it from being a worldwide smash upon its release. Colleen Moore stars as Patricia Fentriss, a young woman whose mother passes away after her hard-partying life catches up with her. Her mother hopes Patricia will go down a different path in life, but Patricia becomes a flapper and enjoys the wild life that comes with it. Like many flappers, Patricia is also not a fan of the idea of getting married. So when she meets Cary Scott (Milton Sills), her mother’s former boyfriend, she falls in love with him, but moves on to having an affair with a violinist when Cary leaves for Europe. However, that fling comes to an end after she and the violinist get into a fight during a party on a yacht, which ends with her jumping overboard to escape. After being rescued, Patricia is nursed back to health by Cary and changes her mind about marriage.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said of Flaming Youth, “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch.” Colleen Moore was already an established star in 1923, but Flaming Youth brought her to a new level of stardom. Her sleek, black bobbed haircut and bangs remain a definitive part of the flapper image.

The film was a big box office success, which comes as no surprise given the controversial nature of the book and the fact that the movie’s promotional materials played up its scandalous content. One lobby card described the movie as, “A spicy society exposé so startling that the author dared not sign his right name,” and promised to give, “…the bald facts, the truth about our modern society with its gay life, its petting parties, its flapper dances, its jazz.” Another lobby card asked, “How far can a girl go?”, and elaborated, “She smoked cigarettes. She drank. She went to petting parties. She led the pace of the gayest life in the gayest society.”

Flaming Youth 1923 Theater Lobby Display

Theater lobby display promoting Flaming Youth

With hype like that, it’s hard not to be intrigued by it. At one point, the film was even banned in Canada and a theater owner was fined $5 for showing the film. In fact, The Exhibitor’s Trade Review advised theater owners in their December 1923 issue to exploit the film’s controversy:

“The best way to arouse the interest of the curious is to condemn the picture. There is here a peculiar psychology which makes people impatient to see what they have been told not to. Here is your cue for exploitation. Get out letters warning the people that the picture is rife with bold situations and un-restained necking parties and advise them not to see it and forbid their children to do likewise. They will come hotfooting it to your theatre.

Inflame the minister with the outrages against society on the part of the younger generation, and get him to preach a sermon on the subject using the picture to illustrate his point.”

Reviews from the era generally paint it as being an enjoyable movie. The Exhibitor’s Trade Review said of it, “What makes this picture different, is not its subject matter, but the manner in which the story is handled by a competent cast. It is the same old tale of the jazz crazy modern age, chock full of picturesque scenes and amusing situations.”

While Colleen Moore certainly got the most attention for her role, Milton Sills and Myrtle Stedman (who played Patricia’s mother) also got good notes from the New York Times. Many of the less favorable reviews point out that it isn’t a completely faithful adaption of the book. One reviewer from the Cincinnati Inquirer didn’t care for any of the characters and wrote, “Throughout the production, scarcely a single admirable character appears, and the audience is regaled with the antics of a lot of childish adults and adulterated children. Consequently, the members of the cast, though many of them are talented, work against unfair handicaps.”

Despite the fact that Colleen Moore was such a big hit in Flaming Youth, she didn’t stick to flapper roles for much longer. The following year, she starred in The Perfect Flapper, but it wasn’t as well received. By that time, other actresses had also made a name for themselves for playing flappers, particularly Clara Bow, so Moore simply moved on with her career. Although she publicly declared that she was done with flapper pictures, Moore would go on to star in 1929’s Why Be Good, in which she plays a young, modern, forward-thinking woman.

The flapper type fell out of popularity in American culture around the time of the stock market crash of 1929 when their lifestyle was suddenly deemed frivolous. In the 1930s, there was a return to a more wholesome image of youth in cinema, with stars like Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, and Judy Garland becoming some of the top box office draws. It wouldn’t be until the mid-to-late 1950s and early 1960s that we got to see the more adult side of youth again in movies like Rebel Without a CausePeyton PlaceSplendor in the Grass, and A Summer Place.

Flaming Youth is a prime example of how a movie being a major success upon its release doesn’t necessarily guarantee preservation. While many of the definitive flapper flicks of the 1920s, such as Clara Bow’s It and Joan Crawford’s Our Dancing Daughters, still exist and are very easy to see, Flaming Youth is now a partially lost film. Originally, Flaming Youth had a runtime of 90 minutes, but only about 10 minutes worth of footage is known to still exist.

The few minutes that remain are fascinating for a multitude of reasons. If you’re a fan of 1920s fashion and beauty, you’re going to love the footage of Patricia getting dolled up for a party. An infamous skinny dipping sequence during a wild party, shown in silhouette, is among the existing footage and is a perfect example of how director John Francis Dillon used artistic vision as a way to sidestep censorship, something which was pointed out in many reviews from 1923. But most importantly, it’s still easy to see why Colleen Moore was such a delight to audiences.

Unfortunately, Flaming Youth isn’t the only Colleen Moore to become lost over time. Despite being one of the biggest stars of the 1920s, only about half of her films are still known to exist in a complete state. But it’s certainly not due to a lack of effort on Moore’s part, which makes the fact that so many of her films are lost all the more heartbreaking. She personally gave prints of her films to the Museum of Modern Art, but due to an administrative oversight, they weren’t properly cared for. Years later, she contacted MOMA to check on the condition of her films and learned they had deteriorated too badly for them to be saved. Despite all of her efforts to find other prints of her films, she had little luck. Perhaps one day, a complete print will be found somewhere and the world will be able to see Colleen Moore at her peak once again.