1920s

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.

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Underworld (1927)

Underworld 1927

After pulling off  a big robbery, gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft) crosses paths with a homeless, alcoholic man he nicknames Rolls Royce (Clive Brook). Bull likes Rolls Royce’s style, so he decides to make him part of his gang. Bull is a pretty big shot gangster who thinks he’s untouchable. With Bull’s help, Rolls Royce gets his act together and ends up becoming a valuable part of Bull’s gang. Before alcoholism took over his life, Rolls had been a lawyer so he’s got lots of knowledge that’s very helpful for Bull’s many schemes.

Not only is Bull extremely proud of his criminal enterprise, he’s also very proud of his girlfriend Feathers (Evelyn Brent). Things start to get complicated when Rolls Royce and Feathers start to fall in love with each other. One night at a party attended by every major gangster in town, Bull finds out he’s not as untouchable as he thought. When he discovers a rival gangster trying to get Feathers’ attention, Bull kills him, is caught, and sentenced to death.

Although Rolls and Feathers are conflicted about whether or not they should accept this opportunity to be together, Rolls comes up with a plan to break Bull out of prison. Unfortunately, the plan goes horribly awry and Bull thinks he’s been double crossed. But Bull escapes and ends up getting into a big standoff with the police while Rolls and Feathers try to set the record straight with him.

You’d be hard pressed to find a classic gangster movie that wasn’t influenced in some way by Underworld. The story might not be particularly complex, but Underworld effectively set the tone for all the gangster movies that would become hugely popular just a few years later. When you watch it, you’ll inevitably see see moments that make you think of Little CaesarScarface, and The Public Enemy. With Josef Von Sternberg at the helm, Underworld is a bit more stylish than the classic Warner Brothers gangster classics, but it’s no less brilliant. All three leads give excellent performances that really light up the screen. On the whole, Underworld has aged very well. If you’re a big fan of gangster movies, this is an absolute must-see.

The Freshman (1925)

Harold Lloyd The Freshman

More than anything else, Harold Lamb (Harold Lloyd) dreams of being able to go away to college and be a big man on campus. He works hard to be able to go to Tate College,  but since he’s not the coolest guy in town, he decides to see a movie called “The College Hero” over and over again and takes notes on everything the main character does. Once his parents see some of the things Harold is planning to do, like doing a jig anytime he meets someone new, they know this isn’t going to end well.

Once Harold arrives at Tate College, his behavior does make him popular, but for all the wrong reasons. He quickly becomes a target for other students to pick on and Harold’s tendency to try to buy popularity doesn’t do him any favors. The only real friend he has is girl named Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), who he had met on the train to Tate and just happens to be his landlord’s daughter. She sincerely has a crush on Harold for the person he really is, not the person he tries to be.

Eventually, Harold realizes that if he really wants to be popular, he needs to get on the football team. Of course, Harold’s try-out is a complete disaster, but the coach admires his persistence and when one of the team’s most popular players suggest they make him the team’s water boy and let him think he’s a replacement, the coach goes along with it. Thinking he’s made the team, Harold tries taking another step up the social ladder by hosting the school’s Fall Frolic, but the night ends up being another disaster when his tailor isn’t able to have his suit ready on time. Since his suit is only held together with very loose stitches, the tailor has to secretly keep stitching him back up throughout the night. Then things get even worse when Harold and a popular student get into an argument over Peggy and Harold finds out how the other students really see him.

But when Tate College is playing in a big football game, Harold finally has a chance to earn the popularity he’s always wanted. The players on the other team are so strong, all of Tate’s players are forced out of the game because of injuries. Harold is eager to get in the game, but the coach hesitates until he has no other choice. After he finally gets in the game, Harold nearly loses the whole game, but he manages pull through in the end.

I absolutely despise football, but watching The Freshman is one of the rare occasions I will gladly watch something football-related and have a darn good time doing so. Harold Lloyd is an absolute genius and The Freshman is one of his best movies. He was so perfect at playing sincere, likable, but kind of dorky characters; he had it down to a fine art. Not only is Lloyd’s performance excellent, it’s full of absolutely hilarious jokes but still has a lot of heart to it. This is everything a good silent comedy should be. The Freshman is an absolute delight, plain and simple. If you’re just starting to get into silent films and are looking for some movies to help you get started exploring silent comedy, The Freshman is one I would very highly recommend.

A Throw of Dice (1929)

A Throw of Dice 1929

If there’s one thing cousins and rival kings Sohat (Himansu Rai) and Ranjit (Charu Roy) can’t resist, it’s gambling. While on a hunting trip together, the two kings are more interested in gambling with each other than they are in actually hunting. Unbeknownst to Ranjit, Sohat has conspired to kill Ranjit with a poisoned arrow during the trip so it will look like an accident and he’ll be able to take control over Ranjit’s kingdom. But they happen to be hunting close to where Kanwa (Sarada Gupta), a healer turned hermit, lives with his daughter Sunita (Seeta Devi) so Ranjit it taken there to recover. Meanwhile, Ranjit falls in love with Sunita, as does Sohat. Sunita loves Ranjit and isn’t interested in Sohat’s attempts to win her over. But Kanwa refuses to let his daughter marry Sunita because of his gambling habit and they plan to run away together.

After spending a blissful week together before their wedding, Sunita suddenly decides to leave Ranjit after she gets word that her father is dead and she’s presented with some evidence that suggests Ranjit had murdered him. As she leaves to head home, Sohan meets up with her and tries to make her think he’s trying to protect her from Ranjit while Ranjit has a friend of his try to catch up with her and explain the truth.

Once she’s convinced of Ranjit’s innocence, Sunita decides to go through with the wedding. But on the big day, Sohan arrives with the one thing that could put the wedding to a complete halt — some dice.

Even if you think a movie about two men vying for a woman’s affection sounds trite, A Throw of Dice is still very much worth seeing. Once you see it, it’s not the kind of movie you ever forget seeing. Its beautiful cinematography, beautiful costuming, and exquisite scenery make it stand out from other Hollywood productions that have similar plots. This film is absolutely stunning. It’s been compared to some of Cecil B. DeMille’s work because of its spectacular scenery and large crowd scenes, but there was no need to build sets for A Throw of Dice on a Hollywood soundstage when they could film it on location in India. It’s simply one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve ever seen. If you have any interest in film history, particularly in world cinema, this is a must see. Very few movies that were made in India during the silent era still exist intact today, so A Throw of Dice is a rare chance to see a silent film that was filmed in India and starred Indian actors.

Don Juan (1926)

Don Juan 1926As a young child, Don Juan (John Barrymore) is warned of one thing by his father — take all the love he can get from women, but be careful to not give them your love in return. Don Juan’s father Don Jose (also John Barrymore) knows a thing or two about being spurned by women, first when he finds out his wife is cheating on him, then he’s killed by a woman who stabs him. Don Juan takes his father’s advice to heart and after graduating college, he lives in Italy and establishes quite the reputation with women. At the time, Italy was being ruled by the Borgia family and Lucrezia Borgia (Estelle Taylor) has heard all about him. She personally invites Don Juan to a party she’s throwing and he goes, knowing what happens to people who defy the Borgias.

At the party, Don Juan is quite unimpressed with Lucrezia, but is instantly enamored with Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor). Adriana is the kind of woman who makes him forget about all those warnings his father had given him about women. Lucrezia becomes extremely jealous and tries to get her to marry Count Donati (Montagu Love) and plots to kill her father. But then Don Juan get in the way of her scheme and officially wins Adriana’s affections. But Lucrezia isn’t willing to give up so easily and continues to threaten Adriana into marrying Donati. Even knowing how dangerous it can be to cross the Borgia family, Don Juan still refuses to marry Lucrezia and stops Adriana’s wedding. Lucrezia tries to have Don Juan locked up and put to death, but he stops at nothing to marry the woman he loves.

Although it doesn’t feature any spoken dialogue, Don Juan is significant for being the first commercially released feature film with a synchronized soundtrack and sound effects on Vitaphone. Don Juan was definitely meant to be a big prestige picture for Warner Brothers. Not only did it utilize the new Vitaphone technology, it starred John Barrymore, one of the biggest stars in the world at the time, and featured a lot of lavish sets and costumes, plus some exciting action scenes. It even does a good job of using first-person camera perspective in some shots. Warner Brothers clearly pulled out all the stops and it definitely shows. Although the story drags a little bit, it’s generally a very entertaining movie and an excellent action role for the great John Barrymore. It’s not hard to see how this one was a huge hit when it was released and it remains very likable today. (Also, don’t forget to keep an eye out for Myrna Loy in a small role!)

Greed (1924)

Greed 1924As a young man, McTeague (Gibson Gowland) works as a miner and doesn’t come from a wealthy family. His mother would love for him to have a better life, so when a traveling dentist comes to town, she begs him to take McTegue along as an apprentice. The dentist agrees and before long, McTeague has his own dentistry office in San Francisco. He’s not rich, but getting by and he has a good friend in Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Marcus is in love with his cousin Trina (ZaSu Pitts) and he wants to marry her. But when she suddenly needs some dental work done one day, it would prove to be a fateful day for all involved.

Marcus brings Trina to see McTeague and while they wait, she decides to buy a lottery ticket, not really expecting to win. When McTeague meets Trina, he falls in love with her and Marcus tries to be supportive and gives him his blessing to start courting her. It’s hard for Marcus to put his feelings aside and it gets even more difficult when they decide to get married. As difficult as that is, it gets worse when Trina finds out her lottery ticket was a winner and she’s won $5,000. Marcus becomes extremely resentful toward McTeague for not only taking Trina away from him, but for taking that money away from him, too.

$5,000 is a life-altering amount of money (the movie is set around the turn of the last century) and it could do a lot to help a newlywed couple get started in life together. McTeague wants to get a small house so they can stop living in a small apartment in a boarding house, but Trina refuses to spend any of the money. She insists on doing everything as cheaply as humanly possible, even if it means living on days old meat and living in an apartment one of their neighbors was murdered in, so she can squirrel away more money that she never intends to spend. Trina’s penny pinching ways cause a lot of tension between her and McTeague and things only get worse when Marcus spitefully rats McTeague out for practicing dentistry without a license. The couple has to sell virtually all of their possessions and McTeague struggles to find more work. Trina refuses to even let him have a few cents for car fare for him to go look for work on a rainy day.

Eventually, McTeague leaves town to work as a fisherman and takes $450 Trina had saved in addition to her winnings since they’ve been married. Trina is left behind absolutely furious and when she has to have some of her fingers amputated, she’s forced to become a school janitor for extra money, still unwilling to spend any of her $5,000. She even withdraws  the money from the bank so McTeague can’t get to it and sleeps on it at night. When McTeague returns from his fishing excursion, he finds Trina and asks her for a little money so he can get something to eat, but she refuses. The next day, McTeague confronts Trina again, but this time he kills her in a fit of rage and takes her $5,000.

Since McTeague is now a wanted criminal, he has no other choice to leave town, so he does and gets back into the mining game. But it isn’t long before begins to worry the authorities are after him. He takes a few supplies and heads into Death Valley on his own with cops following not far behind. Among the authorities is Marcus, who would love nothing more than to see McTeague brought to justice.

Greed is a movie that certainly has a level of notoriety in film history. Director Erich Von Stroheim infamously spent two years filming 85 hours worth of footage for this movie. Filming the scenes in Death Valley alone took two months and Von Stroheim’s original cut of Greed was an astonishing 42 reels long (approximately 8 hours, but could be longer depending on the speed it was projected at.) Von Stroheim only screened his original cut once for about a dozen people before Irving Thalberg insisted it be cut down to a more manageable length. Von Stroheim cut it down to 24 reels and wanted it released as two separate movies, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Thalberg had it cut down to 10 reels. For years, Greed only existed in an extremely truncated form. The hours of footage that were part of Von Sternberg’s original cut are believed to be lost, but the movie has been restored to a 4-hour long version using still photos to fill in some of the missing gaps.

Now rightfully celebrated as being one of the finest films to be produced during the silent era, Greed was greeted to less enthusiasm after its original release. The restored version does a good job of giving us a better idea of what Von Stroheim’s original vision was. The length alone is something that will deter a lot of people from watching it and I know some people aren’t big fans of using still photos in place of lost footage, but it’s really the kind of movie every self-respecting silent film fan should watch at least once. Admittedly, I don’t have the most patience for 3+ hour long movies, but I love Greed. Since it’s been a few years since I last saw it in its entirety, I re-watched it again before writing this post and I’d almost forgotten how good it is. It may be slow paced, but it’s a very compelling look at the power greed can have over people. I know I would be absolutely thrilled if that lost footage ever turned up somewhere.

The Magician (1926)

The Magician 1926

Margaret Chauncey (Alice Terry) is a sculptor who is seriously injured when part of a sculpture she’s working on breaks off and falls on her. Since her spine is injured, the surgery necessary to treat her is very sensitive. Luckily, Doctor Arthur Burdon (Ivan Petrovich) is the one who performs the operation on Margaret and he’s well-known for being one of the best surgeons around. As he performs the operation on Margaret, the procedure is observed by several medical students, including Oliver Haddo (Paul Wegener), who has an interest in hypnotism and magic, in addition to medicine. Haddo is on the search for finding a way to create human life.

Margaret’s operation is a big success and Arthur and Margaret fall in love afterward. It isn’t long before they’re engaged. Meanwhile, Haddo uncovers the secret to creating life in a book and it requires a maiden’s blood. Haddo decides that Margaret is the one whose blood he wants to use to conduct his experiments with. He tries following Margaret and Arthur around, trying to get close to her. Even though she doesn’t like him at all, he uses hypnotism to put her under his spell. One day, he comes to see her at home and makes it seem like a statue has come to life. He asks her to come see him the following morning and even though she doesn’t want to go, she isn’t able to stop herself from going.

Just before Margaret and Arthur are to be married, Haddo uses his control over her to force her to marry him instead. He and Margaret’s uncle know she would not go with him on her own, so Arthur tracks them down in Monte Carlo, where Margaret is now quite the gambler under Haddo’s control. She gets in touch with Arthur to let him know she’s not there on her own accord and he helps her escape. But just when they think she is safe, Margaret suddenly disappears one day. Haddo has tracked her down and kidnaps her so he can continue with his experiments.

I wouldn’t call The Magician one of my favorite movies, but it’s another movie I’m surprised I don’t hear mentioned very often. Rex Ingram’s direction is great and John F. Seitz’s cinematography is fantastic. The scene where Haddo makes it appear as if Margaret’s statue has come to life is particularly effective, thanks to both Ingram’s direction and Seitz’s cinematography. Story-wise, The Magician is something of a cross between Frankenstein and I’m going to say The Barbarian, just because it’s the first movie that comes to mind for me when I think of movies about a man going to horrifying lengths to control a woman. Fortunately, The Magician isn’t offensive like The Barbarian and is actually a pretty good movie that deserves to get more credit for being a great example of silent horror. If you see this one on TCM, be sure to set your DVR for it because it’s absolutely worth seeing at least once.