flapper

The Baby Vamp versus the Avenging Angel: The Headliners behind CHICAGO (1927)

In honor of the Toronto Silent Film Festival screening CHICAGO (1927) this afternoon, here are my notes on the film that appear in their program.

Fox Theatre's CHICAGO Advertisement Cropped

A newspaper photographer poses a pretty flapper with platinum curls wearing not much more than a peignoir over a man’s lifeless body. Don’t worry. He’s not really dead. He’s playing her real victim, who’s lying cold elsewhere. Welcome to CHICAGO where a girl gunner gets priority in print over her victim! She was the one who was going to sell papers, and she did. In the movie, her name is Roxie Hart, but in real life her name was Beulah Annan, and she would take her place on “Murderess Row” where she awaited trial and attempted to maximize her beauty and newfound fame into an acquittal. Reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins covered Annan’s case. If Annan was an angel of death, then Watkins wanted to be an avenging angel with her words as her weapon.

Watkins didn’t start out wanting to be a reporter. She intended to live a quiet academic life of language and religious studies, but she changed her mind after her short stories earned her a place in George Pierce Baker‘s prestigious playwriting workshop. Baker, a mentor of Eugene O’Neill, encouraged Watkins to go out and experience life for her work. Suddenly her purpose crystallized for her; she felt called to engage evil, and she’d do it through her writing. Like O’Neill, she became a reporter, and she chose to work in Chicago since she saw it as a hotbed of sin, and she applied to the CHICAGO TRIBUNE because it was “a real hanging paper—out for conviction always.”

Watkins was sure Annan was guilty. She had shot her lover in the back after drinking two quarts of wine with him, so her defense of preventing dishonor didn’t seem believable. Watkins wrote biting and acerbic pieces mocking Annan and the attitudes that might free her. Annan would be audacious enough to claim to be pregnant, but cynical Watkins feared Annan’s being a woman was enough to avoid conviction. Juries were only composed of men, who held Victorian views of women. As a youthful and beautiful woman, Annan might walk away from her crime. The prosecutor entreated the jury not “to let another pretty woman go out and say ‘I got away with it!’” Since Annan and Hart received the same verdict, you’ll have to watch them film to find out what it was!

Watkins covered crime for six months. Her last case was the Bobby Franks murder. She interviewed Leopold and Loeb and provided pre-trial coverage of the pair. She suddenly switched to movie reviews. She may have burnt out on covering murders, but she definitely was biding time until she could reunite with Baker to work on a play she had started, one ultimately called CHICAGO. Watkins distanced herself from her newspaper work, and no mention of it was made to promote her play. Her play was a hit, and when the offer came in to adapt it for the screen, her services were declined. She wrote other plays and eventually screenplays, including LIBELED LADY (1936).

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Toronto Silent Film Festival News!

Modified Toronto Silent Film Festival 2017 Poster
The Toronto Silent Film Festival is selling early bird passes for its 2017 edition. Get yours before they run or time out! While things didn’t work out for me to attend in 2016, I’ll be there at least in published word in April. I’m very excited to be contributing a piece about CHICAGO (1927) and Jazz Age murderesses to their programme book.

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An Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (1927)

In honor of National Flapper Day, I’ve reposted my essay on CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (1927), which was originally published on Flicker Alley‘s blog.

Children of Divorce Cropped Poster

Before they were jazz babies, they were jazz orphans. Their parents’ marriages dissolved under the influence of new post-war mores, and childhoods became a belated war casualty. Lacking role models, another generation seems doomed to repeat their elders’ mistakes. That’s the world CHILDREN OF DIVORCE portrays, and at its center are two women who share an unbreakable bond of sisterhood forged by the shared trauma of neglect.

If the movie sounds like a weepie, be warned, it is! Heartstrings are pulled starting when cherubic Kitty Flanders (Joyce Coad) is left at a Parisian convent by her mother (Hedda Hopper). Only one girl, Jean Waddington (Yvonne Pelletier), befriends Kitty. When she’s terrified her first night, Jean shelters Kitty in her bed, and a precedent is set for their relationship. Jean becomes an adoptive and protective big sister.

Children of Divorce Kitty and Jean First Night

Joyce Coad & Yvonne Pelletier in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE

A second precedent is sent when the girls meet Teddy Larrabee (Don Marion). He climbs over the grounds’ wall one day. He’s escaping bickering grown-ups and a woman mockingly flirting with him. He’s, also, a child of divorce. When the close-in-age Teddy and Jean meet, they are smitten. Sad and envious, Kitty laments she has no one. Kitty will continue to see others’ happiness and want it.

Kitty’s a classic little sister. Since Jean was slightly older than Kitty when her parents divorced, Kitty doesn’t have the background of family stability, albeit brief, Jean had. Jean easily slips into the caretaker role, and Kitty assumes the one of needing help and understanding. Jean loves Kitty, but that can’t cure her hurt.

Since Jean’s rich after her parents’ divorce, and Kitty isn’t, she must find a way to afford remaining in elite social circles. As she grows up, Kitty’s taught by her mother that money comes before love. There’s an implication that her mother isn’t simply concerned for Kitty’s well-being, but also that Kitty’s mother will use her daughter to achieve security. Jean can marry at her leisure.

Under such circumstances, it’s easy to see why Kitty ages into a partying, gold-digging flapper (Clara Bow) and Jean grows into a noble patrician (Esther Ralston). Despite their differences, the women are delighted when life reunites them. Their bond has lasted. Their relationship becomes complicated because of Teddy, now going by Ted (Gary Cooper).

Children of Divorce Ted Kitty Jean Reunited

Gary Cooper, Clara Bow, & Esther Ralston in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE

When Jean bumps into him at a party of Kitty’s, old attractions resurface, but Jean disapproves of his hedonistic lifestyle. She encourages him to get a job in order to become worthy of being her husband. Love reforms Ted, but it can’t save him from Kitty’s machinations. He’s wealthy, and he’s wanted by someone Kitty admires. Once she gets Ted drunk at a party, he doesn’t stand a chance. He wakes up tousled and marriedto Kitty!

This is the biggest test of Jean and Kitty’s love. Of course, Jean is angry about Kitty’s betrayal and Ted’s haplessness and unfaithfulness. Perhaps Jean sees this as an indicator she and Ted weren’t meant to be, but Kitty comes first when Jean makes her decision of what to do.

As the movie’s moral voice, Jean doesn’t believe in divorce, and she can’t deny Kitty a shot at happiness. Jean naively believes her friend and sweetheart can make a marriage work despite their incompatibility and lack of love. When Kitty insists that she will be a good wife, Jean relents and gives Ted to Kitty by not fighting for him—a decision that will lead to misery and tragedy.

children-of-divorce-jean-listens-to-kitty
Despite the love triangle, the movie’s central relationship is clearly Kitty and Jean’s. They get the most screen time. For one, Bow and Ralston were the experienced performers. Ted was Cooper’s first major role, one he was cast in at his lover Bow’s insistence. While in the final product he’s handsome and charismatic, on the set he was unsure and afraid, and he blew many takes. Panicked, he even fled filming and had to be brought back. He couldn’t be trusted to help carry the picture.

The result was the actresses were given the opportunity to explore their characters’ dualities. Ralston’s role is not as flashy as Bow’s. Ralston has to be the perfectly good friend. She has to be beautiful yet believably tossed over for Bow. She manages to be a strong, sympathetic presence. It would’ve been easy for Bow’s character to simply be the manipulative vamp, but she makes sure the audience knows every bad, later-regretted act comes from Kitty’s place of pain.

There’s symmetry in imagery emphasizing the women’s relationship. A powerful, early shot shows young Jean comforting young Kitty in bed at the convent. A second, equally affecting shot reminiscent of the first occurs near the film’s end. A grown-up Jean comforts a grown-up Kitty in bed. We never see either woman in bed with a man. For the women, the bed isn’t a sexual place, but a shared place of refuge. Whether escaping adult-caused problems or their own adult problems, it’s a place they return to together. Whatever happens, each has a sister to love her no matter what.

Children of Divorce Kitty and Jean Last Time

Interested in seeing this movie? Flicker Alley releases it to dual edition disc on December 6, 2016. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provides the score.

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Happy International Women’s Day 2016!

Anita Louise Autographed Picture

For International Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to remember a woman of words, Anita Loos.

She started screenwriting in the silent era, and she’s credited for elevating the intertitle beyond the functional into an art form. A wordsmith, wit, and satirist, her intertitles had zing. Yes, they had “It.” It’s likely her exposure to the family tabloid and her own newspaper writing made her value succinctness. Would it be even more of a stretch to suppose that this early education schooled her in the art of equivocal, particularly innuendo? She could write a line explaining a scene and poking fun at a star’s persona. When describing yet another one of Douglas Fairbanks‘ characters designed to show off his athletic prowess, she wrote he had “a vaulting ambition which is likely to o’erleap itself and fall on the other side.” She was getting meta before that became a thing!

She had an aversion to societal hypocrisy and the pitfalls of her sex, threads that run through her work, like in this line from Intolerance (1916): “When women cease to attract men they often turn to Reform as a second choice.” Instead she had a fondness for hustlers, loose women, and other characters usually viewed as disreputable undesirables. Exposure to San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and piers, when accompanying her father on drunken wanderings and fishing trips, gave her a glimpse of those types at a young age, and she never lost her fascination for them, and they populate her work.

The most famous example is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes‘ Lorelei Lee, a ditzy, gold digging flapper. Loos wrote the comic novel as an act of revenge. She was tired of seeing her male intellectual friends (and crushes like H.L. Mencken) fall for women with more “downstairs” than upstairs. Despite Loos’ upset over the inspirational situation, there’s an admiration for Lorelei’s wiles and ambition. Loos was a hard worker, and so was her creation, who through her kooky logic and machinations ultimately wins.

Despite a disastrous love life that included marriage to a controlling, abusive, narcissistic, spendthrift schizophrenic, she kept working and didn’t turn to drink or idleness unlike other contemporaries. She survived film’s transition into sound writing more screenplays and expanded her oeuvre to include additional novels, (likely fictionalized, but so much fun to read) memoirs, Hollywood biographies, and Broadway.

She even became a script doctor. My favorite example of this was her being called in to work on a property other male writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, couldn’t get right. They couldn’t relate to the source material. Fitzgerald thought it “a spiteful portrayal of femininity.” Loos loved the Clare Boothe Luce play. Loos was very familiar with its subject matter, an exposé of the cattiness, gossip, men-stealing, and gold digging of Park Avenues socialites and the wannabees. She delighted in dishing on what occurs behind the scenes in women’s spaces. She turned out a script in three weeks that remains a classic beloved for its zingers to this day–The Women (1937).

When she died in August of 1981, her drive resulted in a body of work spanning about 65 years. She remained a celebrity. The gamine, 4’11’ girl with the pixie cut had aged into a grande dame of the New York social scene, active and vibrant close to her end. She frequented the party, fashion, and arts circuits. She enjoyed being among the surviving few of the silent era able to share what ever stories she remembered or fabricated. Film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow interviewed her for his television documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980), and he must have had a fun time sorting fact from embellishment. “At the memorial service, friends Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, and Lillian Gish, regaled the mourners with humorous anecdotes and Jule Styne played songs from Loos’ musicals, including “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The storyteller would live on in others’ tales and through her work.

Anita Loos Reading

References

Anita Loos.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
Anita Loos.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
Anita Loos.” Women Film Pioneers Project. Women Film Pioneers Project, n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.
Hutchinson, Pamela. “Anita Loos – Sharp, Shameless Humour of the ‘world’s Most Brilliant Woman‘” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
Somerville, Kris, and Speer Morgan. “Anita Loos: The Soubrette of Satire.” TMR Content Archives. The Missouri Review, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.

Friday Fun: Betty Boop in Tokay

The latest music video vixen is–Betty Boop! About 85 years after her first screen appearance, Max Fleischer‘s cartoon flapper is back on screens dancing her way through pop rock band Dengue Fever‘s video for their single Tokay.

No new footage of Betty has been drawn. As the group stares into 3-D View-Masters, we see what they see: scenes of Betty and her friends from classic cartoons. Betty’s antics are cut into a new adventure to harmonize with Tokay’s sounds.

Dengue Fever merge Cambodian pop and psychedelic rock. Their singer Chhom Nimol‘s birdlike vocals seductively weave through the song. Her hyperfeminine voice plausibly could emerge from busty Betty’s mouth.

Nimol’s lyrics in Khmer tell of the Tokay, a gecko of Southeast Asia, whose cries have special significance for lovers. Yearning for auspicious signs, lovers count the cries to determine if they will marry their desired ones or remain single.

Even if you can’t understand the words, the vocals and the psychedelic sounds and the beat give a trippy effect. Fans of Betty Boop will find themselves entranced.

Kudos to my friend Toni from MergingArts Productions for pointing out this video!

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival Preview, Why Be Good? (1929)

My San Francisco Silent Film Festival preview was interrupted due to being felled by a bug, but I want to mention a surefire hit of the fest screening today–Colleen Moore in Why Be Good? (1929).

Bodil Rosing & Colleen Moore in Why Be Good?

Bodil Rosing & Colleen Moore in Why Be Good? (1929)

Thanks to Ron Hutchinson and The Vitaphone Project, Colleen Moore returns to the festival in Why Be Good (1929)! Her Wild Oat Screened in 2008. Colleen may be eclipsed in current collective memory by another helmet bobbed honey Louise Brooks, but Colleen was the bigger star in her era. The loss of so many of her films, her lack of comparative screenings, a less dangerous, more girl next door sensuality than the troubled Louise, and those Pabst films helped history get revised to reflect contemporary popularity. Why Be Good? along with another new preservation effort, Synthetic Sin, will help Colleen get the attention and the acclaim she deserves today. Both films focus on the ideas of her being a good girl and what makes any woman good. They play around with Colleen’s good girl flapper comedienne image. Why Be Good? lays out how confusing being a modern maiden is for the woman and society. How game does she have to be to be considered fun and one of the gang before fellas, parents, and society misconstrue her character? There are plenty of gags, dancing, fashions, and Colleen to keep this upbeat. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompany this film.

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Merry Christmas!

Colleen Moore Singing Christmas Carols

 

Merry Christmas from Spellbound by Movies HQ! The woman serenading us with carols is actress Colleen Moore. I selected her to share glad holiday tidings because 2014 was a great year for the departed actress. Her long thought lost final two silent films, Why Be Good? and Synthetic Sin, were restored, and they toured specialty cinemas and archives this year. A whole new generation who might not have seen her small number of surviving silents fell in love with one of Hollywood’s original flappers. Today Colleen is often overshadowed by Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, and Louise Brooks. During her height of Colleen’s fame, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.” Now audiences have two more chances to see how brightly she burned.

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Happy New Year–Especially for Fans of Clara Bow!

Clara Bow Calligraphic New Year

Happy New Year’s wishes go to readers of Spellbound! I suspect quite a few of you brought in the New Year by celebrating with cinematic treats. I did. Hubby and I brought in the New Year watching a pair of Deanna Durbin movies at the Stanford Theatre. We started with the 7:30 PM screening, which meant we got a Wurlitzer concert before and after our first film performed by Jerry Nagano. He put together a playlist full of romantic tunes, including What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? The whole audience could have answered, “Watching movies!”

That’s something the spellbound will have great opportunities for in the coming year. It promises to be a great one for revival and restoration screenings. Our calligraphic cutie Clara Bow kicks off the New Year with screenings that would tempt anyone to travel to catch her motion pictures. She’s featured in a series starting this week at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Call Her Savage: Clara Bow Hits the Screen. The series runs January 4, 2013 through February 10, 2013 in the Billy Wilder Theater, and it’s co-sponsored by the Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film Program.

Clara Bow & Antonio Moreno in It

With Antonio Moreno in It

“Clara Bow Hits the Screen” is a great secondary title. She remains a charismatic and entertaining actress for all who are lucky or smart enough to watch one of her films today. Her impact on the audiences of yesteryear can’t be underestimated either. In her prime, she was the number one box office star in Hollywood beloved by both men and women and drawing them out to her movies, even when the scripts were weak. Her persona managed to fuse the flapper and her modern mores to a non-threatening likability normally demonstrated by the girl next door type. Of course, there were probably many who wished she was the girl next door–even today!

In Call Her Savage

In Call Her Savage

The series launches this Friday with Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoop-La (1933). These racy Pre-Codes come from near the end of her career and taunt us with her talkie potential, and their outlandish plots have to be seen to be believed. An extra bonus: The biographer of her definitive biography, Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, David Stenn will be on hand to put her in context and discuss her life and career on January 4.

The Wild Party, a Collegiate Comedy

The Wild Party, a Collegiate Comedy

The subsequent screenings feature: Parisian Love (1925) and Capital Punishment (1925) on January 5, It (1927) and Children of Divorce (1927) on January 11, Wings (1927) on January 19, The Wild Party (1929) and a clip show of film fragments on February 8, and Kick-In (1931) and Her Wedding Night (1930) on February 10.

Clara Bow & Ralph Forbes in Her Wedding Night, still from the Clara Bow Archive

With Ralph Forbes in Her Wedding Night, still from the Clara Bow Archive

Wings, It, and The Wild Party promise to be crowd-pleasers. The clip show should be of particular interest to Bow buffs and “includes trailers from lost feature films, newsreels, recently discovered Technicolor outtakes, and Bow singing ‘True to the Navy‘ in the 1930 all-star revue Paramount on Parade.” Kick-In offers historical curiosity since it was her first film after the infamous Daisy DeVoe trial, which was damaging to Bow’s reputation at the time. It’s a testament to Bow that more people today ask Daisy Who?


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Quick Impressions from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival–Night One

San Francisco Silent Film Festival Logo

I’m overstimulated with images and sounds and staying up too late. That can mean only one thing–I’m attending the 17th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Well, most of it. Sometimes sleeping or eating has taken a priority over screenings or hobnobbing with friends old and new. Here are some quick impressions of the fest so far.

Night One

Clara Bow Red Hair Promo

Red Hair
Before Wings, We were treated to the color sequence that remains of this mostly lost Clara Bow film. Clara’s hair is as flashing red as I’ve read versus how it photographs more darkly in black and white. She’s vibrant and beautiful in color as she goofs around in her swimming trunks with a pelican. Even though she did not survive the advent of talking motion pictures due to temperament, she definitely could have survived the evolution of color film. Clara is one of filmdom’s biggest what-ifs.

Wings 1927 Paramount Poster

Wings
The second instance of Clara Bow at the fest. While Bow steals all her scenes, this is really a men’s picture. Charles “Buddy” Rogers (playing Jack) and Richard Arlen (playing David) are the featured stars. They’re in the now familiar story of young men growing up quickly into men when pressed into service. We follow their induction into this homosocial world as their friendship and platonic love develops and is tested by jealousy and fate. Ultimately their relationship ends in tragedy.

Arlen & Rogers Duo Shot from Wings

This was my first instance of seeing the film on the large screen. I’ve only seen it on the small box before. I noticed two slight, but fun things.

The first is naughty. When Jack and David enlist, there’s a door marked private in the background. It opens to reveal the backsides of some very athletic and trim male figures. The quick-eyed of the Castro audience made a sound at all this cheekiness. Then the door closes. If you think you imagined the nudity, the door opens another time to reveal the same distinguished figures. Later El Brendel‘s comic relief character Herman Schwimpf goes to the door and starts dropping his trousers, obviously an in-joke to what we’ve glimpsed behind the door, but he’s wearing his underwear, so we’re spared seeing if his character has tattoos other than on his arm.

El Brendel Enlists

I’ve read mention of how Rogers’ and Arlen’s swearing was not appreciated by all, but I’m not the best lip-reader, and I may have been hampered in the past by watching a diminished image, but I had no trouble discerning what was clearly said in the battle scenes. I think their swearing added realism, so I’m not against it.

Rogers Plane Shot

Now the major things.

Wings Tinted Flames Still

The print was gorgeous. Not only had they cleaned it up well, but I don’t remember seeing tinting previously. It was very effective seeing the flames associated with the flight battle scenes. Those planes were made of wood and full of gasoline and ammunition, so they would have made a spectacle burning. When the bad guys are hit, the flames are a relief because they mean our heroes are safe, but when they’re on our heroes’ planes, they add to the tension and our worries.

Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Wings was accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and foley artists. The orchestra always does a fine job of melding music to image, but the presence of such sophisticated sounds effects took the aural adornment to a new level. The sound effects helped make the audience gasp louder at each plane crash or mid-air collision. While we couldn’t feel the physical crashes, each boom added to our sensory experience giving more realism to our experience. Poking around on the internet, I’ve learned a little more about the foley artists from the screening. The “small army of Foley sound effects artists led by Star Wars veteran Ben Burtt and Mont Alto’s Rodney Sauer.”

I’ve some thoughts on the ending. I do not want to give anything away for those who have not seen the film, so read no further if you do not wish to be spoiled. You’ve been warned!

I’ve been thinking of character types and class and how they relate to the ending. Jack is the classic American type. He’s youthful, energetic, scrappy, ambitious, and middle class. He does not realize he’s in love with Clara Bow’s Mary, who’s a perfect match in qualities. He survives. David is sophisticated, genteel, rich, and stalwart. He’s in love with Jobyna Ralston‘s Sylvia Lewis, who looks as though she belongs in a beautiful art nouveau print. She seems as if she’s from another rarefied era. David, despite being an all around swell fellow, perishes. Obviously the idea was to show the consequences of war and not just the exciting air fights. We’re sad when David dies, but we’d probably be more devastated if Jack did. He’s the type of person we’ve been taught our country should be filled with. The ambitious, not wealthy whose drive was to rise up in class and build up the country as they innovated in their modernity and populated and rebuilt the United States. Jack’s living not only gives us hope for the character’s future in the film, but also gives us hope for a country rebuilding after war.

Rogers & Bow Couple Shot from Wings


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