Silents are Golden: 6 Important Flappers Of The Silent Screen
Earlier this year I wrote a column about how youthful “flapper” trends influenced silent films and vice versa. I briefly went over the notable screen flappers, just so you’d get the gist of who was popular. Well, I’ve decided those brief mentions simply aren’t enough–let’s take a closer look at some of the most influential 1920s screen flappers, the bobbed-haired gals who would inspire a generation.
6. Gladys Walton
While touring the William S. Hart studio one day in 1919, the teenaged Gladys Walton was asked if she had any interest in appearing in pictures. After talking the matter over with her mother, who thought it sounded like fun, Gladys embarked on a busy and profitable movie career.
The “flapper” as we know her today was just coming into vogue when Gladys entered films. Hardworking and full of bubbly energy, she was a natural fit for screen flappers. Her madcap characters in features like Pink Tights (1920) and The Guttersnipe (1922) earned her the title of “Little Queen of the Flappers.” Universal would capitalize on her popularity in film after film.
They churned out so many films, in fact, that Gladys grew exhausted. After a three-year stretch without a break from filming, she took an impromptu vacation to Hawaii without informing the studio. After this, she would only appear in a few independent productions before retiring from show business to happily focus on raising a family.
5. Marie Prevost
Born in Canada and raised in Los Angeles, Marie Prevost became a Sennett Bathing Beauty in 1917. An attractive brunette who was a talented swimmer, she was soon a featured player in Sennett’s comedies, gaining fans with appearances in Hearts and Flowers (1919) and Down on the Farm (1920). She headed to Universal in 1921, where she became one of the earliest actresses to be identified with flapper roles.
A big star of the 1920s, Marie stayed busy in a number of light comedies. By the end of the silent era, she transitioned to talkies but began to have a hard time getting featured roles. Sadly, she became concerned with gaining too much weight and started using extreme diets in an attempt to control it. This, combined with alcoholism, lead to her early death at age 38 in 1937.
4. Virginia Lee Corbin
Virginia Lee Corbin’s career started when she was only four years old. An angelic-looking, golden-haired youngster (she was a natural brunette but her mother decided she would be blonde), she was an artists’ model for Christmas cards and the like before getting into films. Signing with the Fox Film Company in 1917, she became a major child star, thanks to her “kiddie” roles in Jack and the Beanstalk and the subsequent Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp and The Babes in the Woods, all filmed in 1917.
As she grew older, she took breaks from the screen but made personal appearance tours and acted in vaudeville. As her teen years approached, she started to find a new niche as a “flapper type.” She had a variety of roles in the 1920s but films like Broken Laws (1923) and The Honeymoon Express (1926) were keys to this new “jazz baby” image, culminating in the classic Bare Knees (1927). Of flapper culture, Virginia once said, “It’s not what you wear on your body that counts. It’s what you wear in your head.” Her personal life was unhappy, involving clashes with her mother and a divorce that resulted in separation from her two children, but she had the distinction of being one of the few child stars to successfully transition to adult roles.
3. Joan Crawford
Yes, that Joan Crawford, of the shoulder pad and severe eyebrow fame. While today we know her for roles in films like Mildred Pierce, in the late 1920s she was the embodiment of flapper culture–with a strong emphasis on the Charleston.
Her real name was Lucille LeSueur, and she had an unhappy childhood in a broken family. A talented dancer, when she was a teenager she started working in theater and eventually became a chorus girl in New York City. Looking to break into pictures, she got a five-year contract with MGM and her name was changed to the catchier Joan Crawford (although she thought it sounded like “crawfish”).
Eager to become a star, she gained publicity by performing in Charleston contests. MGM started giving her bigger roles, and her dancing skills shone in Jazz Age features like Our Dancing Daughters (1928). Her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. also heightened her stature in Hollywood. While she’s known more today for brooding film noir and bitter feuds, it’s fascinating to know that in the 1920s she was the symbol of youthful exhilaration.
2. Clara Bow
Few who knew Clara Bow when she was a tomboy from an impoverished Brooklyn family probably imagined she would become one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. Clara’s family life was tumultuous and she often escaped by going to movies. While a teen, the naturally radiant Clara entered a 1921 Fame and Fortune Contest, which she managed to win. One thing leads to another, and small film roles started coming her way.
Studios started taking notice of her charisma, and she began to be associated with flapper roles. Expressive and sexy, with a touch of wistful sadness, she soon rocketed to stardom in films like The Plastic Age (1925) and It (1927).
Her thriving career was marred by the talkies, which she found very stressful, and growing schizophrenia. She married the thoughtful Rex Bell and had two sons, but toward the end of her life, she had to live apart from them, looked after by a nurse.
Regular readers might remember the buoyant Colleen from my article on her last year. And if you aren’t familiar with her, you should be–she was arguably the biggest embodiment of “flapper culture” in Hollywood. Getting the acting bug at a young age, family connections allowed her to try for a screen test in Chicago, which lead to a modest six-month film contract. When she got off the train in Hollywood, she knew she was home.
Once the contract was up, Colleen pressed on, spending years playing a series of ingenues until hitting upon the role of Pat Fentriss in Flaming Youth (1923). She loved the role and decided she was meant for the “flapper” niche, solidified by her freshly-bobbed hair. Audiences adored Colleen and she starred in hit after jazzy hit, becoming one of the biggest stars of the Roaring Twenties.
By now you might be wondering: Where is Louise Brooks? While she’s considered an icon today, in the 1920s she was not considered a major star. Always cynical of Hollywood, she did her best work with G.W. Pabst in Europe. Fading from the cinema scene by 1940, she was fortunate to be rediscovered by critics in the 1950s. Let’s give Louise a nod.
I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of these stars–as charming and lively today as they were back in the Jazz Age. Hopefully, they’ll continue to be appreciated for many decades to come.
–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.