Flapper films in the Silent Era became responsible, on a large scale, for introducing “it” to the American psyche, shocking proponents of Victorian social values, and altering the way a woman’s sexual identity came to be perceived in the long haul.
IT hit the silver screen in 1927. The film’s star, the incomprehensible Clara Bow, was 22 years old. The film wielded widespread publicity for Bow and forever linked the jazz baby to roles that showcased her breezy sexuality – her characteristic “it” that writer, Elinor Glyn, during a cameo appearance in the film, explained as “a self confidence and indifference to whether you are pleasing or not, and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold.” That “something” was sexuality at its finest, And Bow’s character, the flippant shop girl Betty Lou Spence , oozed uncharacteristic sex appeal. during an era when the word “sex” (outside of reference to gender) was considered uncouth.
Betty Lou was mischievous. In the film, she sets herself up with rich shop owner Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno). He’s out of her league but she wants him and she’ll get him at the expense of using people, crashing parties, and intimidating his girlfriend.
But, as evidenced by the film’s success at the box office, audiences anticipated IT – loved it, maybe – and were entertained in record numbers by the main characters’ chemistry. They knew what they were getting. They remembered Bow from her attendance at “petting parties” in THE PLASTIC AGE and, despite potential shock value, [probably because of it], went anyway to the cinema. Opening-week grosses doubled every other movie’s in every city in the nation except New York where the film still brought in 50 percent more than the competition (Stenn 86).
If moviegoers wanted nothing to do with matters of sexuality, their attendance at theatres didn’t show it. They had tired of Mary Pickford types who, being so unaware of their sexuality on-screen, didn’t bother to flaunt it. Bow’s characters, however, outside of being fully conscious of their sexuality, were in full control of it. Mischievous? Yes. Ruthless? Some. Hateful? Never. Likeable? Very much. A likeable celebrity donning the role of a sexual go-getter made accepting sexual liberation in the movies – and maybe in real life – a little easier. And the demand for films that placed liberated women out to get their men was greater than ever.
The women, many of them well known flappers, were vamps – a term coined for a woman who uses her charm or wiles to seduce or exploit men (Card 183). The flappers didn’t invent the concept of sex in cinema. They popularized it. Before them, cinema was sexless except for an underground porn industry which functioned in back-alley operations and is rumored to have given many 20s movie stars connections in the industry in which they’d eventually come to make their living. Says author Kevin Brownlow in his BEHIND THE MASK OF INNOCENCE, “I came across a print of A FREE RIDE [a 1923 pornographic film] at a collector’s convention in Los Angeles. The locale is Southern California; two girls are picked up on a lonely road by a man in a Model T and driven to the desert, where they prove that sex in the 20s was conducted in precisely the same way as it is today, whatever the movies would have you believe.“ (1)
Flapper films, alongside 20s porn, however, weren’t explicit. Compared to many of today’s films that showcase sex as a plot element [think: QUILLS or the 2000 remake of THE END OF THE AFFAIR], blatant sexual content in these films was relatively mild. But flapper films post-IT were among the most sexually charged of their day.
In the 1929 G.W. Pabst film, PANDORA’S BOX, Louise Brooks stars as a vamp who spawns a rivalry between a father and son for her affections. Brooks’ character, Lulu, courts a man maybe twice her age, kills him, and uses her murdered husband’s son as a decoy to narrowly escape getting caught. While the film isn’t exactly fun – or funny – like IT or THE PLASTIC AGE, [and it wasn’t supposed to be], Pabst illustrated yet again how a woman who essentially can’t make up her mind about whether she loves father or son or both or none can have them both and flirt with strangers at fancy parties. Brooks, like Bow and others like her, bombarded audiences with the “it” the flappers’ devout viewing public craved.
“It” presented itself typically in the likes of leading ladies and sometimes in leading men who, for lack of talking, substituted big facial expressions and big gestures to illustrate how they were feeling. Camera operators shot close ups of Bow’s sighing and batting eyelashes and Brooks’ icy glares to show the girls meant business. And probably it helped that many of the celeb flappers were good looking for the same reason that it helps advertisers today to use runway models like Kate Moss to sell jeans.
Audiences, (comprised of sexual beings), tend to remember the pretty face – and armed with the flamboyant personalities of the flappers who guzzled gin and sang and danced their way into the American consciousness – audiences couldn’t resist giving them a chance. The moviemakers were selling a product too, to a target market consisting of men and women who experienced firsthand the restrictive sexual mores of the day. The product was sex itself.
Probably, moviemakers knew exactly what they were up against, so they had to be careful about how they addressed what had always been considered a taboo. For instance in THE PLASTIC AGE, when director Wesley Ruggles goes about exposing the follies of college life through the exploits of jocks and the girls who love them, it is socially unacceptable to have the audience present for the “petting” at the “petting parties.” Instead, amidst an on-again-off-again relationship between Cynthia Day (Clara Bow) and Hugh Carver (Donald Keith), there is a party after which the guests retire to the woods. Carver reminds the sex-crazed Day, “I thought you said we wouldn’t go to these places anymore.” She shrugs it off and, taking his hand,
makes a mad dash for her woodsy surroundings. Carver doesn’t protest.The scene illustrates a role-reversal of some magnitude. A woman initiates a tryst. Her male counterpart likes it. And, most accounts would agree, she certainly appears to.
Likewise, in IT, Betty Lou Spence and Cyrus Waltham aren’t shown getting cozy in a bedroom. Audiences follow them to Coney Island where she instructs him, “Hold me tight, Mr. Waltham,” as they take a ride on a sliding board. On the slide, we close in on Betty Lou tumbling all over the place – and tumbling all over Cyrus! – while making attempts to keep her fly-away skirt from revealing her panties.
The sequence includes several close-ups of the characters’ happy faces that are almost contagious in their sincerity. Once the audience is smiling too, Betty Lou stops bothering with the skirt and enjoys the ride where, at the bottom, a rotating tunnel leaves her stumbling some more. Waltham comes to her aid and the two, laughing, proceed off the ride where, Spence, whether in an attempt to be cute or caught in the moment, shows us her panties on purpose. Bow’s character was allowed to reveal her sexual flippancy only in the context of a day in a public park where – in the name of fun! – touching is unavoidable.
Baby steps – but censors were still hard at work. Audiences make or break movies and, like an overprotective parent, censors in the 1920s [like censors today] weren’t about to allow the jazz babies to alter a long-established sense of how a lady ought to act and how a man ought to treat her. The clever dame, the scheming leading gal who enjoyed parties as much as her men friends and sex perhaps more so, was almost unheard of. To see with one’s own eyes the femme fatale at work in film, brought the flappers home for people who otherwise would never have had anything to do with them. In real life, they might not have wanted to. Rose-colored glasses always make life rosier. In other words, truth – when it’s not nice truth – is tough to handle.
PARISIAN LOVE, released in 1925 by Preferred Pictures, was a story of urban poverty and failed romance. It’s the tale of a girl who exploits a man who loves her to finagle her way into a romance with his friend and her ex-lover. Marie (Clara Bow) plays the girl – abused, tough skinned and dreadfully common. In reality, Clara Bow was the epitome of common, a Brooklyn waif whose parents continually subjected her to physical and emotional violence. For affection, Bow turned to love affairs. Fine for the screen but she was contracted not to chat up her common past, to keep quiet if she could help it (because her voice was “whiney” and screamed Brooklyn), and to control her sexual urges – or at the very least, control the urge to kiss and tell (Stenn 36).
There was the double standard. It was the same one that allowed Louise Brooks to come into her own as a sexual being on screen and censored the details of her real life rape at age 12 by a member of her family’s housekeeping staff (Card 206). Then, only a few years after Brooks’ rise to popularity, censors would meet their match in the likes of the Vaudevillian Mae West, whose vulgarity tested the Hays office and whose popularity declined steadily only six years and eight films after she began her career. She was, she said, a “freewheeling sexual libertine victimized by a punitive censorship body staffed by a group of Victorian prudes” : the Production Code Administration (Couvares 187). The Administration erred on the side of caution. The public seemed to genuinely like the flappers even when they gossiped about them – but the censors couldn’t be too careful. The industry was at stake. And, 70 years later, the industry survived – survived even censorship and the transition to talkies. But the film careers of Bow and Brooks did not.
Hard pressed to accept silent stars using their gift of gab, audiences disapproved and the two made individual, tumultuous attempts at leaving their star-studded pasts behind. They stopped entertaining. Neither could have predicted, however, what far-reaching effects their lives in film would have on women to come.
Aside from their influence in the world of fashion, music, and literature, the flappers were amongst the first screen icons to use film as a medium for challenging the conventions of the day. They went beyond this, however. They challenged taboos. They justified the independent woman. They gave clearance to the underdog female to recognize her potential and get her guy. They put in a plug for sex: something fun – and not just for boys! They encouraged members of both sexes to dance – literally and figuratively. They lived it up – and they were good at it. Generations of women to follow, including notables Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Onassis, would turn to flapper films for insight on how to be silly, smart, and sexy all at the same time (Stenn 1). We were learning from women who, for years, characteristically, and because they had no choice, were silenced. We were learning about something that, these days, warrants loads of talk but probably doesn’t need to, because sexual magnetism is essentially more complex than gibber-jabber.
Marie Hawthorne, a wise lady, a Brooklyn nurse by day and a flapper by night who, when she was living, called herself [my] great-grandmother and laughed about how she made her Puritan ancestors roll in their graves with her shenanigans as a young woman, used to say she never got a talk about “the birds and the bees.” “Mother,” she said, “wouldn’t have it. It was hush-hush.” But Marie didn’t need a talk. “I went to the movies and learned from the best of them,” she said. Clara, Louise, and the whole lot of them were her peers and her teachers. The cinema was their black board.
Sidebar: Lately, I’ve viewed innumerable flapper films with special attention paid to my favorite, Clara, and with increased interest in Louise. (I used several of these films to illustrate examples here.) Additionally, I read a number of interesting books on “seductive cinema”and the lives of the jazz babies. Armed with a plethora of insights about flappers and the silent stage, I was faced with the task of evaluating them – in seven pages. My challenge here was condensing what will someday amount to a doctoral dissertation of a far greater number of pages than seven and much more significant research into a snippet. But I managed – and lived to tell of my exploits. And, over a cup of espresso with two old friends at a corner table in a smoky old jazz club in my childhood home, I rehashed the details. The most shocking realization of all: 70 years ago I would have been one of them.
“My God,” said Friend 1, as if, like me, in an instant she became oddly and acutely aware of her surroundings, her friends, the course of her life, her aspirations and our assorted secret plans to rejuvenate Vaudeville with her as an acrobat, Friend 2 as a singer, and me as the dancer who makes time for performances amidst starring in a major motion picture, “we are one of ’em!” And proud of it.
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(1) I saw this one myself last year at a Greenwich Village shopkeeper’s exhibit on the era that inspired his clothes. This guy makes flapper dresses for any 21st century woman bold enough to wear them in public and the day I was there, purchasing a bagful of his duds, he was playing none other than A FREE RIDE on his shop TV to prove just how bold the Jazz Age really was. Brownlow isn’t kidding. I remember that, much to the amusement of the shopkeeper, I had to do a double take. Couldn’t believe my eyes. Explicit might be an understatement.
1) Brownlow, Kevin. Behind the Mask of Innocence. New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc. 1990.
2) Butler, Ivan. Silent Magic. New York: Ungar Publishing Group. 1988
3) Card, James. Seductive Cinema. New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc. 1994.
4) Couvares, Francis G. Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press. 1996.