Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern
By Joshua Zeitz
Technically speaking, Colleen Moore wasn't the first actress to portray the flapper on-screen. In 1920, a small production company released an unmemorable film entitled, simply, The Flapper. "In some sections you may have to define the title" one trade journal advised potential distributors, "though its meaning is pretty generally known by now."
The writer got it half-right and half-wrong. Even as D.W. Griffith was fighting a losing battle to wield film as a blunt cudgel in the fight against modern corruption, movie audiences in the decade before America's Jazz Age were growing accustomed to a new sort of female character-far more sexual, more wanton, and more dangerous than charming Mary Pickford or dear, sweet Lillian Gish.
There were several early varieties on the fern me fatale, none of which could be properly termed "flapper." The "vamp," commonly associated with the actress Theda Bara, was an exotic, sexually charged creature who left behind a trail of ruined lives and craven men. By one expert assessment, Bara had "the wickedest face in the world, dark brooding, beautiful and heartless." Bara and others played this role expertly, and to wide acclaim, between 1914 and 1920.
In a world where female sexuality was increasingly discussed but still feared and misapprehended the vamp was a tantalizing yet sufficiently dark and distant figure for public consumption. There were fast women in the world, but they were still foreign and unusual creatures.
The vamp's days were numbered from the start. As moviegoers became more comfortable with overtly sexual women, they turned to a less menacing model that of Cecil B. DeMilie's crazy, debauched wife. In films like Old Wives for Sew (1918), Don't Change Your Husband (1919), Male and female (1919), and The Affairs of Anatol (1921), De Mille fashioned a stock story line: Bored and boring housewife faces stiff competition from a faster, looser, younger woman (often her husband's secretary ); husband leaves housewife (or considers leaving her); housewife dons makeup, hikes up skirt, and begins frequenting hot jazz clubs, often on the arm of a dark, mysterious sheik; husband falls in love with his wife again; marriage is saved.
Everyone-except perhaps the husband's secretary, who is left out in the cold lives happily ever after. Little wonder that Motion Picture magazine hailed DeMille as "the apostle of domesticity." He was preaching a new gospel of personal freedom and sexual exploration, but within the bounds of matrimony.
In some respects, The Flapper, appearing in 1920, represented a bold new direction for the New Woman of the silver screen. The film was "no old, creaking vehicle for a star to ride in," announced Moving Picture World, and it turned its lead actress, Olive Thomas, into an overnight celebrity. Thomas played the part of Genevieve King, a typical middle-class girl who grows weary of life in tiny Orange Grove a town that "didn't even have a saloon to close" and persuades her parents to pack her off to boarding school in New York. Forsaking her wholesome boyfriend, Hill, Genevieve begins chasing after older men and falls in with a group of ne'er-do-well city slickers, including Richard Chenning, a handsome lech several years her senior, and a gang of jewel thieves who involve her in criminal mischief.
Genevieve, a good girl at heart, devises an elaborate plot to bring the crooks to justice. The film ends with the young protagonist safely back in Orange Grove, reunited with good old reliable Bill.
If she was a conservative model for a flapper, Colleen was a talented performer nevertheless. She was an expert comedian, able to act with her whole body and to move her eyes and face in perfect synch with a part. In Ella Cinders a clever nod to Cinderella she played the part of a beleaguered modern-day stepdaughter who scrapes together money for professional photographs, wins a magazine contest, and travels to Hollywood to become a Him star. Her comic timing and adorable antics struck a resonant chord among moviegoers-men and women alike.
Much of Colleen's commercial appeal clearly lay in the public's knowledge that she was happily married to John McCormick, a former publicist and now producer for First National, whom she wed shortly before filming Flaming Youth. If Colleen Moore, the archetype of flapperdom, could embrace the domestic ideal, then surely it was acceptable, if not wise, for American parents to allow their daughters a little harmless experimentation with bobbed hair and jazz. And maybe even liquor. Being a flapper didn't necessarily entail a blanket renunciation of marriage and motherhood. It was just a phase in every girl's life. A harmless, necessary, cathartic phase.
In press interviews, Colleen drove home precisely this point. "It's such fun asking my husband for money," she admitted with delight, not a bit like the funny papers say! And I just love it, too. And I'm just trying to bake a cake for John. John will eat it. He is brave and he loves me. I didn't know there was a domestic bone in my body, but all of a sudden I get such a thrill out of ordering milk and paving the butcher's bill! I always have breakfast with John always fix his coffee for him. Do you think I'd let anybody else do that? I should say not. He takes one lump with cream. I'm tiding to be a model housewife. . . ."