Saturday, October 17, 2009

IT's Elinor Glyn's birthday!


Born today in 1864, she was an English Edwardian novelist, in her mid-fifties when the nineteen-twenties dawned, matronly of build and to the casual observer more Margaret Dumont than Clara Bow.
But Elinor Glyn was nonetheless as seminal an architect of the Jazz Age as Scott Fitzgerald.
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She was born of aristocratic stock in Jersey - that's old Jersey, over here, where the cows come from - and moved in distinctly high society circles. Unhappy in marriage, she wrote for something to do and latterly to maintain her standard of living; her colourful romances were published at the rate of one a year and scandalised her contemporaries. In Hollywood, they tallied exactly with the themes and attitudes of the contemporary sex-dramas that De Mille and others were pioneering, and she was happy to take up the offer to cross the pond and write scenarios.
It was she, of course, who coined the term 'it', not as a polite euphemism for sex appeal, as is often claimed, but to describe that more indefinable kind of attraction that rises from the unique chemical nature of certain individuals, and transcends mere personality, charm, sexual attractiveness and similarly measurable characteristics.
Inevitably she was asked just who, in the public eye, had It. Among men, she nominated Gary Cooper, and he was known briefly as the It Boy, but it didn't take. Her christening Clara Bow the It Girl, however, did - indeed it pretty much sealed up posterity for the both of them.
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Elinor Glyn is like a phantom hovering over twenties culture. Her work, swooningly idealistic and in many respects oddly out of step with the pace of the twenties, is far less obviously influential to its moment than that of Dorothy Parker, say, or Anita Loos. Her primary innovation was a discreetly heightened eroticism and, more importantly, an unvarnished frankness about her protagonists' desires and motivations. But from this she built a reputation as a kind of elder stateswoman and mascot of twenties emancipation (both female emancipation and youth emancipation). She also became a name to drop. In a delightful musical short called Office Blues Ginger Rogers plays a stenographer lamenting her inability to attract her dishy, brainy boss. The problem is incompatibility of interests and station, expressed in a couplet so joyous it deserves an on-screen round of applause:
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He is such a colour-blind bee and I'm a wasted flower,
I'm the type reads Elinor Glyn and he reads Schopenhauer.
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Yet it is of just such dilemmas that the typical Glyn romance was forged. Certainly the one about the working girl and the boss's son, that reappeared in Hollywood movies with such ritualistic frequency throughout the twenties and thirties, if not invented by her, was surely to some degree crystallised under her jurisdiction. It is also the basis of her most iconic monument, Bow's film It, only tangentially indebted to her work, but erected as a kind of monument to her, and in which she consents to make a suitably regal cameo appearance as herself.
She would have made a splendid addition to any Hollywood party, and served in just that function for many years, just as she does in The Cat's Meow, Peter Bogdanovich's generally excellent account of the death of Thomas Ince, where, in an inaccurate but charming portrayal by Joanna Lumley, she narrates as well as features in the unfolding mystery.
She died back in London in 1943, in a world that had outgrown hers in just about every conceivable sense.
But she takes a much deserved place in the Movietone News heroes' parade. Happy birthday, Elinor.
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