Silents are Golden: 5 Flapper-Themed Films From The 1920s
In the mood for a film about the Roaring Twenties? Something lighthearted with plenty of bobbed hair, short skirts, hip flasks, and jazz? (Personally, my answer is always “yes.”) Save your modern takes like The Great Gatsby (2013) or Midnight in Paris (2011) for a different time–why not go straight to the source and watch a couple of popular flapper flicks from the 1920s itself?
When I say “flapper flick,” I mean silents that revolve around the era’s fun-seeking youth culture, not just films that happen to have a lot of cloche hats. The idea of a “flapper” seemed to really take shape around 1922 when the term morphed from a general term for an impetuous teenage girl to signifying a jazz-loving, bobbed-haired young woman always on the lookout for a fun time. (Her male counterpart was the “sheik,” who tended to favor slicked-back hair, loud vests, and baggy trousers.) Studios were always keen to capitalize on trends, so it didn’t take long for frothy comedy-dramas about partying flappers (with all the relevant clichés) to show up regularly in movie theaters.
Here’s a selection of some of my favorite “flapper films,” perfect for kicking back after a long day with some popcorn (and maybe a highball or two, if you’re feeling extra authentic). I’m betting you’ll get a kick out of them!
5. Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
Yes, the sparkling, Charleston-dancing lead actress is that Joan Crawford, who had won numerous dance contests before making her way to Hollywood. In fact, this was the very film that made her a star, a rival to established names like Clara Bow.
We follow the story of Diana, the popular jazz baby who’s a virtuous girl at heart, and her friend Ann, who seems sweet and innocent but who’s really a scheming gold digger. When Diana becomes interested in a handsome man from a wealthy family, Ann schemes to get him for herself. “Wild” party scenes in vast Art Deco mansions complete with showers of balloons liven up the story, and seeing a youthful, vivacious Crawford is a surprising treat.
4. Our Modern Maidens (1929)
A followup of sorts to Our Dancing Daughters, this film again stars Crawford (in her last silent role) and also adds Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (watch for the party scene where he imitates his famous father!).
Crawford is a carefree heiress who’s engaged to a diplomat and unwittingly gets herself involved in a love triangle. The story has some surprisingly scandalous moments; however, it might still seem secondary to the huge parties that are the big centerpieces of the film – and of course, there’s all that Art Deco and fashionable clothing to gawk at again.
3. The Plastic Age (1925)
Quite a few Clara Bow features are great examples of flapper films, and this one also does double duty as a “college film”–another popular subgenre. More and more young people were attending college in the 1920s, and “college life” – at least, its fun side revolving around big football games and coed parties – was a familiar topic.
While Bow is the real draw of the film, its star was Donald Keith, playing the athlete Hugh Carver. Hugh is clumsily trying to get through his freshman year at Prescott College when he meets the popular Cynthia, who introduces him to life with the “fast set.” After a few parties too many start to affect his grades, his father gives him an ultimatum: “make good” or you can’t come home.
Based on a popular 1924 novel, The Plastic Age was a huge hit and the first big film that Bow appeared in. The rest, as you undoubtedly know, is history.
2. Synthetic Sin (1929)
Who was considered the flapper of her generation? Arguably it was the slender Colleen Moore with her iconic straight bob – no one less than F. Scott Fitzgerald himself said, “I was the spark that lit up flaming youth, and Colleen Moore was the torch.”
Like in The Plastic Age, Synthetic Sin offers two themes for the price of one – a story of a small-town girl trying to make good, and a look into the gangster underworld of New York. The ambitious young Betty gets the part of a “wicked” woman in her sweetheart’s play, but she isn’t up to the task, and the play bombs. Deciding she needs some “sinful” experience, Betty decides to go to New York City and soak up some of that wicked local color. Naturally, she gets (innocently) involved with a criminal gang. The plot is all the more fascinating when we consider that the gangsters are based on the kind of real-life figures audiences would have read about in the papers.
1.Why Be Good? (1929)
Another Colleen Moore vehicle, you arguably can’t get much more “Jazz Age” than this frothy feature. Bobbed hair, trendy frocks, partying, necking, night clubs, Art Deco, fast cars, hip slang, hooch flasks –Why Be Good? truly has it all. Even a Charleston contest!
Moore plays Pert, a spunky, self-assured jazz baby who adores dancing all night in the hippest of clubs. Of course, she’s actually a “good girl” at heart, just happening to be – as she puts it – “naturally too hot for this old folks’ home!” At a club one night she meets the handsome Winthrop, a department store owner’s son, and after they flirt and dance all evening he considerately drives her home. When all the partying makes her late to work the next morning, she discovers to her surprise (and embarrassment) that her new boss is no other than Winthrop.
This sleekly-produced film knows all the flapper tropes – almost too well – and is also highly aware of how flapper culture was being discussed at the time. It’s an excellent time capsule in more ways than one.
So! I hope you’re intrigued enough to check out at least a couple of these films. Since much of the exciting Jazz Age is familiar to us more from modern movies and Halloween costumes, it’s fascinating to see how flappers were portrayed in the actual 1920s, when the culture was fresh and new.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.