Saturday, 3 January 2015

All in a flap… Bare Knees (1928)

“It isn’t what you wear on your body; it’s what you wear in your head.”

My Great Aunt Lillian is 101 and was born just three years after Virginia Lee Corbin, the star of this film. I don’t think Lil was a rebellious teen but browsing through old family albums trying to play spot the flapper we have a few more likely suspects all given away by their hair, a twinkle in their eyes and the very real possibility that they once revealed their knees at Liverpool’s Grafton Ballroom.

Bare Knees is an archetypal “flapper movie” and plays to its audience like a late fifties teen movie or an eighties coming of age story that show the generations ultimately working together in the face of seemingly extreme shifts in fashion and mind-set… at first the adults don’t get it but in the end they re-discover their own youthful outlook and both sides recognise the others contribution… “you know kid… you’re alright!”. 

Forrest Stanley, Jane Winton and Virginia Lee Corbin
“If all women were like Jane, husbands wouldn’t have to worry…”

With a scintillating script by Harold Shumate based on a book by Adele Buffington, the film has some cracking intertitles all “delivered” in style by VLC, an actress I had heard little about but who had been in the flickers since childhood. Graduating to more grown-up fare here she is Billie, the teenage sister of Jane Longworth (another “Big Sis” role for the elegant Jane Winton – see The Patsy…) .

Jane lives in married malaise taken for granted every day by her careerist husband John (Forrest Stanley) who is a district attorney:  who clearly knows the law far better than his wife. John returns home on her birthday to find her with their best friend Paul Gladden (Johnnie Walker) and talks as if only he understands how to make a marriage work…

Virginia Lee Corbin
“Well, I could roll over and butter myself with sorrow! Is this a party… or a wake?”

But a storm is coming to disrupt this cosy complacency in the form of an unexpected arrival from Billie… The Longworth’s are just in the middle of a rather staid party when she makes her appearance as the door opens to reveal her feet first and then an alarming absence of skirt all the way up to and way beyond her knees!

Billie's hemline stuns the room into silence...
Director Erle C. Kenton makes the absolute most of this showing the entire room going into shock with open-mouthed astonishment all round…  It’s funny and works in the context but really the hepcats of Berlin and Paris would have been unimpressed. Still, everything in context!

Billie explodes into the room and catches the eye of both Paul and a young lawyer Larry Cook (Donald Keith) with whom she proceeds to sharply cut the rug.
Virginia Lee Corbin and Donald Keith
“Excuse yourself, Big Boy, while me and the girls split infinitives…”

 Billie finds a group of young women down in the mouth – they’re a baseball team and just they’ve lost their best player prior to a contest with the boys. All looks hopeless but Billie has an idea…

The girls run out with short-shorts and distract the boys into a 29 to zero defeat… if only the Boston Red Sox had had this idea they maybe wouldn’t have had to wait those 86 years between World Series…

Back page headlines
“Young lady, your bare knees and bare back are going to get you into trouble.”

Billie’s big splash doesn’t play well with sensible Jane though and the girls have it out back home. Jane can’t see that her sibling’s display is more about individuality than sexuality and neither can the men.
All that is, save for Larry who pops the question on a moonlit car drive. But Billie isn’t ready.

Will Larry strike out?
The youngsters have been frequenting the Ship Ahoy Café on the Pom Pom Pleasure Pier; it’s a lively place where “…the management is not responsible for the loss of hats, coats or reputations.”  John is looking to close the place down and sends Larry to investigate the bawdy venue with its dancing pirate girls and private rooms.

“Men find it difficult enough to be moral, even when women dress decently!”

Little does he know that his sister-in-law is not the only person to be frequenting the Café… things come to a head as truths are revealed, Billie shows her character and all hell breaks loose at the Pier.

Pom Pom pandemonium
Bare Knees is more fun in the first half when Billie’s attitude has the town’s high society on the run but it makes its point with the dramatics of the closing segment.

The performances are very good especially Jane Winton who plays the sensible sister weighed down by marital indifference with depth and subtlety.  Maude Fulton is also great value as Bessie, the Longworth’s comically-disheveled maid who makes a journey of her own inspired by Billie’s sartorial liberationalism.

Jane Winton
Virginia Lee Corbin’s energy naturally dominates and she makes for a thoroughly-modern flapper who has taken charge of her own choices and doesn’t need a man to define her. It’s a real shame there are so few of her films surviving. She married and started a family in the thirties but tragically died from TB at only 32… There’s more about her here on the Silents are Golden website in a biography from Tim Lussier.

I watched the Grapevine DVD which uses a reasonable print – it’s available direct or from Amazon. I wonder if Lil and my other great aunties ever saw it?

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