Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Flappers: Free, Female & 21

Fourth in a series about strong women in film. Strong women are independent, beautiful, sexy, feminine and just want everything in life that a man wants and believe that they have every right to have it!

The 1920s, that youth-worshiping decade of freedom and abandon, spawned a female phenomena known as "The Flapper." Skirts were higher, hair was bobbed and women were voting, working and living on their own. It was this independence that made these young women the antithesis of earlier women film stars with a more demure attitude (though strong in their own way) such as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.

The Flappers, though outwardly carefree and fun-loving, set the stage for the strong film women of the 1930s and beyond. They made their own money, bought their own fashionable clothes, lived away from Mom & Dad (either on their own or with a room mate) and pursued men as eagerly as men pursued them. Although  the mores of the times dictated that there be no sex before marriage (though they frequently came close), the audience knew these girls were no innocents. To the young men so scarred from World War I, the Flappers were a tonic.

Louise Brooks: The Perfect Image of the Flapper

Louise Brooks had the look and the life. She is totally "today" in her attitude, her minimalist method of acting and her elegant sense of style. It is fashionable to prefer her to such bigger stars of the era such as Clara Bow or Collen Moore, who look a little dated to us today. As an actress, we rely heavily on her splendid performances in her two German films, "Pandora's Box" and "Diary of a Lost Girl" as proof of her star power. However, her American films many times showcase her as the fun-loving girl of the '20s, a lifestyle this ex-Follies dancer knew all too well.
Louise Brooks is a Flapper whose fame rests largely on the brilliant gallery of still photographs that beguile us to this day. Her beauty is evident, but there is a stubborn streak of independence and strength that cuts through the 2-dimensional glossies. No matter what, this woman is not going back to the days before the liberating 1920s!

Clara Bow:Jazz Baby Supreme
Clara Bow was the definitive Flapper. The original "Jazz Baby," she was fun-loving, independent, pretty and presumably reckless. Her most famous film, "It," showcased all of the elements of the Flapper. Her character worked and made her own money, she was saucy and knew how to have fun, and she was impudent enough to pursue the boss because she wanted him and knew she was irresistible to him.

Clara Bow's Flapper stressed the joys of youth, freedom and strength. There was never any doubt that Clara was strong. She was proudly a girl from Brooklyn, and if you messed with her - watch out. In many ways she pre-dated Joan Crawford's 1930s determined shop girl, usually playing a "regular" gal of modest means. More than anything, Clara's Flapper was fun. But always there was a far-away look in her eyes, the hint of sadness that was just right for the desperately fun-loving 20s.

Constance Talmadge: Silent Screwball
Constance Talmadge was sophisticated and funny. Like a glass of French champagne, she was bubbly and a little forbidden (in those days of Prohibition). And maybe a little out of reach.

Connie, sister to the dramatic Norma and sister-in-law to Buster Keaton via her sister Natalie's marriage, was the zany, fun-loving girl who didn't take sex very seriously. Though a great comedienne, her image was also chic. She was a genuine Hollywood Star. Though her range was wide (her first important role was that of the Mountain Girl in Griffith's "Intolerance"), she seemed most at home in a mansion with servants and a very nice wardrobe. Her image and temperament somewhat predated Carole Lombard in "My Man Godfrey" and Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby."  Her confidence in her right to be delightful on her own terms and her devil-may-care insouciance in such films as "Her Night of Romance" and "Her Sister from Paris" offer a breath of fresh air that places her firmly in the company of these fabulous Flappers.

Colleen Moore: Ground Breaker

Colleen Moore was an actress who played the part of the Flapper. While Louise Brooks, Clara Bow and Constance Talmadge all lived, to some degree, the life of a Flapper in real life, Colleen merely portrayed this type of woman on screen. Off screen, she was a thoughtful woman who took her career very seriously.

Yet, here she is, bobbed hair, short skirts and all. Films such as "Flaming Youth" and "Synthetic Sin" made her one of the very first cinema Flappers, although the emphasis on sex was more innocent than most others. Another first-rate comedienne, she was the healthy, fun-loving collegiate just sampling the first taste of freedom. Sadly,many of her films are lost today.

The Flappers and the Great Depression
The crash of 1929 heralded the end of the Roaring 20s and its representative woman, the Flapper. Each of the above-referenced woman's career either ended or stalled in the 30s and none of them would ever achieve the career luster they enjoyed in the 20s. The revolutionary aspect of their character, their insistence on freedom in the bedroom, the workplace and society suddenly became obsolete. Interestingly, all except Colleen Moore struggled with great personal unhappiness in their maturity.

And then there is Joan Crawford...

Joan Crawford was also a representative Flapper. Unlike her contemporaries, however, she did not meet the same end. Her image evolved from that of the carefree woman to the free woman with cares; in other words, a mature woman. Crawford offered a bridge between the fledgling Flapper and a full-fledged woman of true strength and freedom.

These Bright Young Things, as much girls as women, paved the way for the strong women in film that followed for ever after. Their look, their style and their attitude gave women a new way to look, not just at the world, but at themselves, their place in it and the possibilities that lie ahead.

To them, we raise a glass of forbidden bubbly!

And a shout out to other film flappers Olive Thomas, Leatrice Joy and Billie Dove!
Olive Thomas
Leatrice Joy
Billie Dove


monty said...

This has to be one of the best posts I have ever read. Very impressive, great job FlickChick. I have always been a Louise Brooks fan. Slowly coming around to Clara Bow.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Monty. That's a great compliment coming from you. Give Clara a chance. She was deservedly beloved by millions.

Clara Fercovic said...

Very interesting post, thank you! I especially loved this sentence: "Her image evolved from that of the carefree woman to the free woman with cares; in other words, a mature woman." Congrats :)

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Clara. These women were fun to write about!

Anonymous said...

Great post! All of those women were so beautiful. I really think people forget that Joan Crawford was once called "the personification of youth." Now everyone (even those who haven't seen her movies) see her as crazy Mommy Dearest, which is a shame.

Flappers are very interesting. I just got out of a women's history class and one topic we explored was how the flapper started. A lot of historians say that is was because women just got the vote and were expressing their new rights and freedoms. However, my teacher wasn't too sure if that was the case, but she never gave us an overly concrete answer haha.

Robin@DecoratingTennisGirl said...

Loved this post. I believe Leatrice Joy was married to John Gilbert and I have seen their daughter speak of her father, John in a couple of biographies. So interesting. Louise Brooks was stunning!

FlickChick said...

@ Jnpickens and Robin: Thanks, ladies.I agree that the vote and the end of WWI had everything to do with the Flappers - thank goodness! And Robin - Louise is timeless. She will never go out of fashion. In fact, maybe she could make an appearance in your decorating scheme?

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Superb pics as always and a compelling topic. I enjoyed seeing Louise Brooks among your flappers. I'm a fan of the Phil Vance detective novels and she appeared in a film version of the second book: THE CANARY MURDER CASE (with William Powell as Vance).

ClassicBecky said...

I think "delightful with depth" describes your review for me. We not only get the fun of wonderful pictures, but a keen perspective on the individual women and the times.

My Grandma was a teenager at the time of the flappers, and she told me that all the girls wanted the totally slim, flat-chested look. So instead of regular bras, they would wear binding cloths to keep the bosom looking flatter. I guess more well-endowed ladies were just out of luck. Oh what we women will do for fashion!

Kudos on an excellent review!

FlickChick said...

Rick & Becky: Many thanks. Amazing how these ladies still continue to beguile us!

Jan Miner said...

Interesting read - as always, a great perspective. Love the photos. Are you going to do something on Billie Dove sometime? She's beautiful!

FlickChick said...

Billie Dove was an exquisite beauty. I'd love to do a post about her and some other Ziegfeld beauties who went on to star in movies.Thanks for the suggestion!

Anonymous said...

I got my pearls out and just started dancing. Love you take on the flappers.

FlickChick said...

Glad you found the post entertaining.

Rotarian said...

Very nicely written post on the flapper girls. It is definitely true that the desired fashion profile demanded flat chests. It's funny in Some Like it Hot when Marilyn Monroe compliments Jack Lemmon on his lack of boobage. "You're so flat chested," Marilyn marvels. "Clothes hang better on you then they do on me."