Colleen Moore

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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Why Be Good? (1929)

 

Why Be Good 1929

Pert Kelly (Colleen Moore) is a vivacious young woman who spends her days working as a department store salesgirl and loves to spend her nights out on the town dancing the night away. Her flirtatious, playful nature leads many to believe that she’s a bad girl, but in reality, she’s a very good girl. While out dancing one night, Pert meets Wintrhop Peabody Jr. (Neil Hamilton) and they fall in love with each other and they make a date for the following night. What Pert doesn’t know is that Winthrop is the son of the man who owns the department store where she works and is about to start working there the next day. Winthrop’s father has also wants him to stay away from the store’s salesgirls.

Due to her late night, Pert is a little late for work in the morning and much to her surprise, sees Winthrop. But when his father realizes there’s something between him and Pert, Winthrop’s father has Pert fired, despite the fact that she’s worked there for two years and was an excellent employee. Obviously, Pert assumes Wintrhop is the one who fired her and is very hurt, but he had nothing to do with it and tries to smooth things over with her by inviting her out again, much to his father’s dismay. His father warns him about how dangerous those wild, young girls can be and Winthrop decides to test Pert to find out whether or not she truly is a good girl.

I saw Why Be Good? for the first time at the 2015 TCM Film Festival and it was most decidedly one of my favorite movie discoveries from the festival. I had never had the pleasure of seeing a Colleen Moore movie before and after just a few minutes of seeing her in this movie, I had absolutely no problem understanding why she was such a popular star. She was an absolute delight to watch; bubbly, charming, and positively effervescent. For a movie that’s nearly 90 years old, Why Be Good? remains remarkably fresh and modern with a great commentary on the double standards for women. This is a great movie to show someone who thinks old movies are all stuffy, dull, and completely detached from the realities of modern life.

TCMFF 2015, Day 3: Light on Movies, Big on Star Power

In terms of how many movies I watched, Saturday (March 28th) was my slowest day at the festival. I had seen 5 movies the previous day and I would see 4 movies the following day (more on that shortly), but on this day, I only made it to 3 actual movies. Instead, I spent most of Saturday going to events rather than screenings but I had the chance to bask in some serious star power throughout the day.

Colleen Moore Why Be Good

My first movie of the day was 1929’s Why Be Good, the final silent film from Colleen Moore. As much as I love silent film, I’d never seen a Colleen Moore movie before and I was definitely not disappointed. If you see Why Be Good without knowing anything about Colleen Moore, you’ll have no problem seeing why she was a big star. She is an utter delight to watch; the perfect example of that youthful, exuberant flapper image. The movie itself is a lot of fun and offers great commentary on double standards for women, a fact that the audience seemed to appreciate very much.

Rory Flynn Book Signing

Rory Flynn Signing Autographs

From Why Be Good, I headed over to the Roosevelt, where Rory Flynn, daughter of Errol Flynn, was signing copies of her book “The Barron of Mulholland.” I would have loved to have been able to see the presentation she gave in Club TCM the previous day about her father’s life, so I wanted to at least be able to stop by, say hello, and get a copy of her book. If you ever have the chance to meet her, Rory is absolutely lovely and very approachable. One of the highlights of the festival was when she complimented my dress because, I mean, how often do you get complimented on your outfit by the daughter of one of the greatest screen icons of all time?

Sophia Loren TCMFF 2015

Photo courtesy of TCM/Edward M. Pio Roda

After the book signing, I took a stroll down to the Montalban Theater to get in line for the taping of the “Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival” interview with Sophia Loren. Although I’ve always looked forward to seeing these interviews on TCM, I’ve never attended the taping of one before and since I admire so many of Loren’s films, I figured this would be a good time to go to one. This is the kind of event that even some of the celebrity guests attending the festival wanted to be at; I spotted Greg Proops and Rory Flynn in the crowd.

Traditionally, these interviews are conducted by TCM host Robert Osborne, but since he wasn’t able to attend the festival this year due to health issues, Sophia’s son Edoardo Ponti was there to fill in for him. Robert Osborne is a brilliant interviewer, but there’s simply no way to replicate the dynamic between a mother and her child and it was very clear that Sophia adores her children. Sophia mentioned being a very shy person and I think having her son there with her helped put her at ease. Being able to see an icon like Sophia Loren being interviewed by one of her sons is a truly unique event that I never thought I would have had the chance to witness firsthand.

Just a few of the subjects she talked about included her family, growing up in Italy during World War II, trying to get a start in show business only to be told she wouldn’t make it because she wasn’t pretty enough, motherhood, working with Vittorio De Sica, her co-stars, and even the infamous photo of her with Jayne Mansfield. She explained that her reaction to Mansfield wasn’t judgement, but that she was trying to figure out technically, how she was managing to keep her dress on.

At one point, she talked about what the movies meant to her as a young girl and how she adored Blood and Sand with Tyrone Power. Although it was a simple anecdote, I liked that she talked about that. In the lobby of the TCL Multiplex, TCM set up a video booth and asked festival attendees to come in and talk about the moments that made them love movies, so it was like she unintentionally gave an answer to that. (If you want to see my answer to that question, my video is up here.)

After a quick dinner, it was back to the Roosevelt for Hollywood Home Movies. As always, they had a fascinating selection of clips including Gary Cooper and Esther Ralston behind the scenes of 1928’s Half a Bride (now a lost film); footage of Hollywood Boulevard around the time Hell’s Angels was released; a party hosted by Cedric Gibbons and Dolores Del Rio in 1935; some of Henry Koster’s home movies that show him visiting Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. Jane Withers’ home movies; footage of Bob Hope, Frances Langford, Betty Hutton and Joe DiMaggio entertaining the troops in 1944; footage of Sophia Loren filming on location in Greece; and Steve McQueen at home.

Hollywood Home Movies Screenings Jane Withers Neile Adams McQueen

Bob Koster, Neile Adams, and Jane Withers at Hollywood Home Movies. Photo courtesy TCM/Edward M. Pio Roda

When they show these home movies, they often try to get family members of the people who were featured in the home movies or who donated them to the Academy to add to their collection come out to talk about them. This year, Jane Withers herself was there to talk about her contributions. Although there were other guests there, including Neile Adams (ex-wife of Steve McQueen), Jane Withers pretty much stole the whole show. She is an absolute riot and a real treasure; the crowd was absolutely going wild for her. Her comments were very candid and hilarious, including one moment where she shrieked, “Look how fat I was!” and then went on to talk about how she used to get so much fan mail from young girls who related to her chubbiness. She has so many stories to tell, I could have easily listened to her go on for hours.

Robert Morse Ben Mankiewicz at The Loved One

Ben Mankiewicz and Robert Morse discussing The Loved One

After a short break, it was time for 1965’s The Loved One with Robert Morse in attendance. This is a movie I had heard about before and thought it sounded like it would be right up my alley, and I was not disappointed. The movie is dark, twisted, and completely off the rails in the best possible way. This isn’t a movie that’s going to appeal to everyone, but I loved it. The Loved One is a satire of the funeral industry and features an appearance by Liberace as a coffin salesman. If you hear those statements and think, “I need this movie in my life,” you will probably like The Loved One. If you appreciate this style of humor, you’ll have a great time watching it at home, but it’s one that absolutely begs to be watched with a crowd who is totally into it (which was the case at this screening).

The whole thing was made even better by Ben Mankiweicz’s interview with Robert Morse before the movie. Robert Morse is a hugely entertaining character. He was hilarious and I don’t think he wanted to stop talking to the audience; it was clear he was having a lot of fun. As a Mad Men fan, I thought it was great that Allan Havey, who played Lou Avery in Season 7, tagged along with Robert. Havey didn’t talk to the audience, but I loved getting to see two Mad Men actors hanging around together. This was just a perfect screening for me; there wasn’t a single thing I can think of that could have gone better.

I wish I could have more to say about the final movie of the day, Nothing Lasts Forever from 1984. Nothing Lasts Forever, despite being produced by Lorne Michaels and featuring appearances by Saturday Night Live legends like Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, was never officially released theatrically due to a multitude of reasons. It had some television screenings in Europe and never made it to DVD, but eventually turned up on TCM Underground a while back. I think I made it about halfway through the movie and fell asleep, waking up in time to catch the very end but had absolutely no idea what was going on. But I did see that this movie will be on TCM Underground again in May, so I’ll give it another shot to find out what I missed.