Saturday, 15 August 2015

Olive branches out... The Flapper (1920)

“This is the fluffiest sort of fluff, but good summer booking just the same, though any but the best type of houses may find it lacking in dramatic meat…” So wrote the Variety reviewer on the film’s release in May 1920. Olive Thomas, whose “appeal is the sex appeal” here continued “her trip toward film fame…”

Sadly Olive’s trip was a very short one and within months she was dead, accidentally poisoned in Paris on holiday with her second husband Jack Pickford. She had been a star of the Follies with (reluctant) sister-in-law Mary describing her appeal: “The girl had the loveliest violet-blue eyes I have ever seen. They were fringed with long dark lashes that seemed darker because of the delicate translucent pallor of her skin.” Those eyes still work in black and white but on this showing Olive was more than just a fine pair of peepers but also a fine comic actor; and all of this in spite of a  uneven script from Frances Marion.

Olive eyes trouble
Directed by Alan Crosland, The Flapper was clearly a vehicle for the rising star – a Pickford by style and not just association – and plugs into the vogue for teen rebellion epitomised by those young women who just liked to have fun particularly those saddled with the tragic restraints of being born into wealth.

A bored teenager
Olive (then 24) plays 16-year-old Genevieve 'Ginger' King a poor little rich girl suffocating in the empty acres of her family mansion in Orange Springs – a town in which “they didn’t even have a saloon to close”. Her father (Warren Cook) is a senator and rules his castle with determined authority. He’s had enough of his daughter’s waywardness and, on the advice of his friend,  Reverend Cushil (Charles Craig), decides to pack her off to boarding school run with strict discipline by Mrs Paddles (Marcia Harris).

Bill takes Ginger for a ride
Before this, we meet Ginger’s (almost) boyfriend, Bill Forbes (Theodore Westman, Jr.) who is about to go to military academy and is part deus ex machine part red herring.

Ginger arrives at school to be confronted by the inmates lined up on the stairs, their short skirts revealing “the limbs of Satan from old family trees…” and appraising eyes who give her the “once over”. The title cards from Frances Marion are quirky whereas the tone of the film is sometimes just odd.

Limbs of Satan?!
For example… the girls like watching grown men but rather than fixate on someone age appropriate, Ginger falls for Richard Chenning (William P. Carleton – 47 at the time) – a middle aged man who wouldn’t give George Clooney or Cary Grant any sleepless nights… Maybe she’s looking for a father figure.

She finally gets to meet her man after a sleigh ride in which Bill forgets to remember that he can’t drive a sleigh; they tumble off and as he tries to recover the horse and snow-cart, Ginger convinces Richard that she’s twenty and on the lookout for some… sophistication.

Joining the grown ups...
Back in the school we have already met some of the other girls, one of whom is played by Norma Shearer (genuinely of school age at the time – 17 years old). Another, is “a moth amongst the butterflies” Hortense (Katherine Johnston) who has too much mascara to be a goody and a scheming boyfriend called Tom (Arthur Housman).

Goodies or baddies?
Ginger sneaks away for an evening of jazz dancing with Richard at the country club and Hortense tells Mrs Paddles in an effort to create a distraction. Sure enough as the school mistress heads off to re-capture her lost lamb, Hortense burgles the school safe just as Paddles pulls Ginger out from the dance, rightly suggesting to the unsuspecting Chenning that he should be locked up for romancing one so young… As he laughs this off to his friends Ginger’s heart breaks as she is dismissed as a silly thing.

The robbery is revealed... Norma Shearer second left?
On return to school she naturally decides to commit comedy suicide but is distracted by the sounds of Hortense dropping the stolen good down to Tom. Naively she accepts her classmate’s lame explanation.

We move on and after an impressive little dance with a ukulele – one of my favourite parts of the whole film! – Ginger is in New York en route to an assignation with Hortense and Tom. I always love seeing real backgrounds in films of this period… an open-top time-travel-tram-ride!

Ginger takes in the sights
Ginger agrees to help the two tea leaves – swallowing their story that they were eloping and only “borrowing” the goods as a joke… She decides to use the contents before she returns them to “vamp” Chenning and thereby gain her revenge… Oh dear Ginge, that sounds awfully complicated, dontcha think?

Queue Olive at last dressed as a proper flapper and cutting and rug very sharply at a mid-town nightclub. She convinces her prey that she is now “grown up” and there is much coded face-pulling at the shock of her lost virginity.

The flapper vamps it up!
Then she returns home to pull the same trick on friends and family… but lost honour is not to be taken lightly and things get a little complicated.

For all its disappointments – this is no prototypical Flaming Youth, It or Bare Knees – The Flapper remains diverting and that is entirely down to its star aided by Marion’s cute intertitles. There are just a few too many elements in the story – is Tom really necessary or his two hero worshiping hangers on from the academy? - but you can see why Thomas was a major starlet and who knows what she could have gone on to achieve as the twenties progressed? 

I watched the Milestone DVD The Olive Thomas Collection which comes with an hour-long documentary produced by Hugh Heffner (a connoisseur of that which Olive exudes…) and which provides a decent summation of Thomas’ short life and career. Some IMDB reviewers pick holes in the tone but, as with The Flapper itself, I much prefer its existence to the alternative!

It is available direct from Milestone or from those canny tax-avoiders over on the long river.

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