Monday, November 26, 2007

My five favourite flappers


You can keep Marilyn Monroe.
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If it is true style, true glamour and true sexual allure you are after, pitch your tent in the late nineteen-twenties.
The twenties flapper has survived as an archetype longer than just about every other cultural phenomenon of her times, and here gathered are my five favourites of her many cinematic incarnations.
In rightful first place is the sexiest film star of all time: Betty Boop.
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In theory, Betty should be grossly unattractive: no man, if asked to design the perfect woman, would give her a head many times too large for a tiny body, with a spiky crown of black patent hair and huge eyes set much too far apart in a face that abruptly ends beneath her cheek bones, leaving her mouth hanging in the space where her chin should be. Yet it is as the perfect woman, somehow, that the blending of these peculiar features ends up.
Her design in fact reflects her slow evolution from her original incarnation, which was as a cartoon dog. But through superb accident, the curious hybrid that was finally christened 'Betty Boop' in Stopping the Show (1932) came to embody the ideal flapper as surely as the illustrations of John Held.
The character that emerged in her classic early thirties cartoons was both innocent and coquettish, knowing and naive, and far more attractive than a drawing has any right to be. Betty is an innocent, not unaware of her sexual attractiveness but somehow frustrated by it and as powerless to moderate it as the lounge lizards or street-car romeos who court her so relentlessly are in its thrall. Fate, too, conspires against her: in her earliest films she is always struggling to preserve her modesty in the face of gusts of wind and trips and tumbles that raise her hemline and expose her garter and frilly underclothes.
Male audiences instantly took her to their hearts, greeting her presence on the bill with the same drooling rapture as their counterparts on screen. They in turn were explicitly catered to by the film-makers, who included flashes of nudity and much sexual innuendo. As such, Betty remains the only cartoon character to have been seriously compromised by the institution of the Hays Code: like Mae West, she was never quite the same again.
You can't go wrong with any of these early cartoons; my favourite is probably Betty Boop's Rise To Fame (1934), from the very end of her pre-Code golden era, because it is a useful compendium of some of her finest moments, and a fascinating example of early combined animation and live-action.
The film begins with her animator Max Fleischer being interviewed by his brother Dave, who asks him to draw Betty. He does so, whereupon she comes to life, addressing him as Uncle Max and asking that he put her into the 'sets' of some of her favourite past films. This he does, leading into a series of clips from Stopping the Show (in which she sings That's My Weakness Now and does charming impersonations of Fanny Brice and Maurice Chevalier), Bamboo Isle (in which she does her hula-hula dance in a tiny grass skirt with visible breasts, left) and The Old Man of the Mountain (in which she sings a duet with Cab Calloway, gong-kicking references and all).
(Click here to watch some of Betty's early movies.)
The Hays Code would soon rob her of her more provocative outfits and characteristics, but it did little to dent her popularity with audiences. Indeed, as an animated star, Betty was granted a luxury not extended to her real-life counterparts. She was allowed to weather changes in fashion and remained a star long after the flapper boom itself was forgotten; indeed she is a ubiquitous presence on stationery and novelty items to this day.
Alas, the same cannot be said of Helen Kane, the original 'Boop-oop-a-doop Girl' (though what she actually says always sounds more like 'poo-poo-pa-do' to me) and one of the most charming talents of the late 1920's. Kane is unquestionably the inspiration for Betty: she looks like her, sounds like her, acts like her and has the same catchphrase. They even sing the same songs.
Kane was a Broadway star of the twenties who enjoyed a brief burst of success in movies during the pre-Code years and had a number of hits on record (including I Wanna Be Loved By You, reprised by Monroe, complete with boop-oop-a-doops, in Some Like It Hot). She faded fairly quickly, because it was felt that her bag of gimmicks - the squeaky voice, the girlish giggles, the pretence of naivety, above all the boop-oop-a-doops - was quickly emptied. Actually though, if you listen carefully to her songs you'll find that 'boop-oop-a-doop' rarely means the same thing twice. Sometimes it is mere musical punctutation, sometimes a means of establishing any one of a dozen moods, sometimes overt euphemism, as in Aintcha, where a plaintive request for jewels and lingerie from her new beau is backed up with the threat:
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Now if you don't, I'll get mad,
And I won't be nice and sweet to you.
You know what I'll do?
I'll get the blues, and I'll refuse
To boop-oop-a-doop,
Boop-oop-a-doop!
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She is extremely funny, and while not exactly pretty - she is well-rounded and has a head not unlike Betty's in shape - is suprisingly athletic and, like Betty, she transcends her physical oddness to project a persuasive if unlikely sex appeal. (Though I could be just speaking for myself here; I'm not sure.)
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All of Kane's movies are fun - Dangerous Nan McGrew, Sweetie and Heads Up combine her talents with those of several other Broadway top draws, and the results are superb, fast-moving Paramount musical comedies with a flavour very similar to the early Marx Brothers movies.
If I have to choose one favourite I guess it has to be Pointed Heels (1929), if only because it is the one that gives her the fullest chance to do a bit of everything - singing, dancing, comedy and character acting. And as a major bonus, it happens to catch Fay Wray at her loveliest, too, and seeing these two in the same film - let alone in bed together - is surely more than we might reasonably have hoped of any one film. Their bantering relationship is a treat throughout (they play sisters-in-law); when Fay says that her husband is leaving for Europe, Helen replies: "Europe? That's in England isn't it?"
The film is a backstage saga revolving around chorine Fay and her troubled marriage to a disinherited millionaire composer, her irritating brother (Skeets Gallagher) and his wife (Kane), a lowbrow vaudeville duo, and the Broadway producer (William Powell) who is staging a show for the latter purely so as to pursue Fay. It all ends happily but a little anti-climactically, since the film as it exists now is missing a reel of the show itself in two-strip Technicolor. Still, what we do have is magnificent: a feast of theatrical style, cloche hats and beautifully primitive early-talkie film technique.
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Superior art deco title design for Pointed Heels, another strong contender for my all-time top ten
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Kane gets two great numbers in the film, Aintcha and I Have To Have You, which she sings twice, first in a hilarious 'highbrow' manner when her character, suddenly struck pretentious, decides to cultivate a new sophisticated image, then again in knockabout fashion after Powell deliberately gets her drunk to cure her of her affectations. This latter performance is perhaps her most physically uninhibited in any film; at the end she falls on her behind with such force she visibly bounces. Not for the first time she seems a cartoon character come to life, and with a face and shape as unreal as Betty's and often uncannily similar, I don't mean any old cartoon character either.
Indeed, much as I love her, it has to be said that Betty was basically a rip-off of Helen Kane. But when Kane took her creators to court for a share of royalties, slippery tactics were employed to squeeze her out of the picture. Betty's lawyers (she did not herself appear in court) pointed out that Kane was only one of several flapper artists who used the contested mannerisms, squeaky voice and phrases. Kane's career soon burned out, and it must have been galling to her to see Betty's popularity endure.
. To this day Kane is often erroneously listed as the voice of Betty Boop. In fact, the Kane impersonation was supplied by Mae Questel, another of the legion of Kane wannabes whose existence enabled Betty's creators to renege on their obligations to her. Questel sounds uncannily like Kane and wasn't a bad match physically, either, judging by her appearance in the wonderful Rudy Vallee short Musical Doctor. In her old age, she played Woody Allen's ghostly mother in the Oedipus Wrecks segment from New York Stories and sings the pastiche song Chameleon Days on the soundtrack of Zelig, still impersonating Kane, this time openly.
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Of the other great flapper stars, the most iconic is Clara Bow. Bow is remembered less for her films than for her nickname ‘the It Girl’ and, sadly, for a number of cruel and unfounded rumours and scandals. (No, she didn't do it with an entire football team; no, she didn't do it with a dog. She did, however, have a by-all-accounts highly passionate affair with Bela Lugosi, who kept a nude painting of her until his death.)
She was born into grinding poverty in Brooklyn in 1905, enduring regular beatings from her father and dependent upon a violent, mentally unstable mother who once attempted to kill her while she slept. By age ten she had watched her grandfather collapse and die while pushing her in a swing and her best friend burn to death in a domestic accident. Her salvation came when she won a part in Beyond the Rainbow (1921) in a magazine competition. She was fresh and natural, and connected with audiences instantly. Stardom followed swiftly.
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The great myth about Clara is that her career faded in the early sound days because audiences objected to her strong Noo Yawk accent. In fact, the public enjoyed her early sound films just fine, but she herself was terrified of microphones and hated the restrictions imposed by the new technology. Though her best films (and performances) are probably to be found among her silent work, I personally prefer the early talkies, especially her first, The Wild Party (1929). It's one of the great pre-Code films, fresh, joyous, sexy and ridiculous, as delightful and utterly of its time as its fashions and opening song:
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When I am old and you are old, we'll fall asleep at nine
But until that distant day, let's make whoopee while we may
Wild party girl of mine!
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It's directed by Dorothy Arzner, who was Hollywood's only major female director at the time, one of its most stylish, and a lesbian - fortunately enough for male audiences, who are rewarded with an obsessive focus on revealing costumes, lingerie and naked thighs. Clara is Stella Ames, the most popular girl in college and leader of the self-styled 'Hard-Boiled Maidens'. They decide to crash the annual college dance (or, according to an intertitle, 'the annual "Costume" - the feminine equivalent of a stag') in shockingly brief and clingy outfits and are promptly ejected again by the head girl, who is dressed as Bo Peep. ("Anything for a thrill! You never think of the example you set the younger and weaker girls!") Still in their provocative costumes, they enter a sleazy roadhouse where Bow is abducted and almost raped, but is saved at the last moment by Fredric March, their psychology professor, out for a midnight stroll in plus-fours, and displaying an unexpected streak of Hemingway masculinity. And this is just Act One!
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Though my personal favourite of all Clara's movies, it was sadly the beginning of the end. Nervous, untutored and insecure, she was adored by the public but openly shunned by the Hollywood community, who considered her uncouth and stupid. Crippled by bouts of depression, she came to loathe her career, retiring in 1933. But as well as an iconic star she was also a genuinely gifted actress, as natural and expressive as Louise Brooks. It is significant that Brooks was one of the few to recognise and acknowledge her talents, and consistently champion her cause.
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"So they didn't like my accent, eh?" - Clara prepares to do battle with the writer who claimed her talkies were unpopular in the book 501 Movie Stars. (Okay, okay, it was me - but that bit was stuffed into my piece without my permission. Sorry, Clara.)
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Brooks herself is the great lost flapper. Remembered most for her moody work in two gloomy German silents, she was in reality an almost infuriatingly high-spirited and free-spirited twenties socialite, a former Ziegfeld girl and dancer. Her cult has depended for its longevity on the serene and penetrating beauty of her black bobbed features and the ease with which she can be slotted into fashionable myths of brutal, artless Hollywood devouring its individualists. Such mythmaking both underrates her true achievement and overplays her tragedy. More than merely beautiful, she was a great actress, one of the very greatest of the silent era. And while the elder Brooks who presided so carefully over her revaluation would never have embraced victimhood, she was happy to endorse the fiction that her estrangement from Hollywood was caused by studio philistinism.
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In truth, she was the architect of her own downfall. Refusing to do retakes on The Canary Murder Case (1929) after it was decided to convert it from silent to sound was a typically self-defeating gesture that earned her a justified reputation as a troublemaker.
It's a convoluted murder mystery in the Philo Vance series, and the solution doesn't really play fair, but what is not at all hard to believe is the central conceit that Brooks's character, a show-girl known as The Canary because of her gimmick of performing on a swing high above the stage, is fatale enough to provide an entire suspect-list of sugar daddies, each potentially driven to murdering her out of sexual jealousy. Long after she leaves the film - she is killed in the first fifteen minutes - she remains a vivid presence in it, and the most lasting impression left by the film is of its first scene: Brooks in feathered wig and costume, kicking her legs and swinging over the audience.
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The other attraction in this somewhat fragile relic is an adorable performance by Jean Arthur from her own squeaky flapper period. (She's equally charming as Clara Bow's sister in The Saturday Night Kid [1929].) The only thing that spoils it is the crude dubbing (and physical doubling) of Brooks's role - and for that we have nobody to blame but Brooks herself.
As a result of such bloody-minded obstructiveness, the pre-code era lost the performer who, perhaps more than any other, embodied its every attitude and affectation. As great a presence as she is in those masterpieces of Expressionist tragedy upon which her culthood rests, it is in her absences that we see the real tragedy of Louise Brooks. Watch her in God’s Gift To Women or It Pays To Advertise (both 1931), then think of all the Lubitsch and Frank Tuttle and Mitchell Leisen movies she should be in.
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If Brooks is the lost flapper, Joan Crawford is the forgotten one. Long before she became the big-shouldered queen of women's pictures, before Grand Hotel gave her class, she was a ex-chorine, boisterous hoofer and "the spirit of all that it means to be young and gay today" - the foremost screen flapper in other words.
This is a role she perfected in the twenties and carried through to the early thirties (until Mayer decided to upgrade her image) , most famously in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and its sequels Our Modern Maidens (1929) and Our Blushing Brides (1930) - the latter my favourite, and the only talkie of the three.
Around the main plot-line - which is one pre-Code fans will have already encountered about a hundred times: pretty shop-girl trying to make ends meet in the big city falls for the dashing son of the shop's owner - swirl a host of interlinked subplots relating to Joanie and the two girls she flat-shares with. They all work in the same department store, modelling lingerie for snooty women and their lascivious sons and husbands. The cast of characters is the usual mix of predatory wolves, arrogant floorwalkers, unsuitable boyfriends, landladies and love-rats.
Beginning as comedy and ending in tragedy, it is a soap opera cunningly concocted for what Variety would have called 'maximum femme appeal', opening a fascinating window onto vanished mores, fashions and customs, and studded with lovely spiky dialogue: "You don't know it, but I've just slapped your face", says Joan to one ardent admirer. When her flatmate swoons, "I just happen to be going out with a hot number who throws hundred dollar bills about like confetti," she shoots back: "Does he make 'em himself?"
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I'll close with a great picture of my other favourite flapper: Lillian Roth. Lillian's finest appearance is as Trixie in DeMille's Madam Satan (see my post Pre-Code DeMille) but she is equally - that is to say sensationally - sweet, charming, sexy, funny and talented in The Love Parade, Meet the Boyfriend (an adorable short), Animal Crackers (with the Brothers Marx, of course), Sea Legs, Take a Chance (in which she does a striptease number) and Ladies They Talk About - basically in anything she made in the thirties, actually. After much personal trauma she re-emerged in the fifties as a brassy torch singer, but it is the thirties Roth that really captivates.
Here she is giving thanks, Hollywood style. The broad on the left is none other than Jean Arthur, who was more than happy to do weird cheesecake like this, before she became the face of Frank Capra's social conscience.
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Whatever happened to all this glamour?