flappers

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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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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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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