Silents Are Golden: Flapper Culture in the Films of the Roaring Twenties
Having written about the famed flapper actress Colleen Moore in the past, I thought it’d be fun to examine 1920s screen flappers and the role cinema played in popular culture at the time. Hope you enjoy!
Of all the cultural trends of the 20th century, few have as much universal appeal as Roaring Twenties flapper culture. Bobbed hair, “short” skirts, jazz, hip flasks, the Charleston — we’re all very familiar with its many tropes, and there’s a good chance some of you reading this have even dressed up as a flapper for Halloween. (Or a tommy gun-toting gangster.)
But not everyone is familiar with how flapper culture evolved. Most just assume certain fashion trends and devil-may-care attitudes burst onto the scene with lightning speed around 1920, to the shock of all corseted, uptight Victorians, who were supposedly the norm but a single year hence.
Nothing is that simple, of course. There were a number of factors that contributed to flapper culture, and I would argue that high on the list are moving pictures.
Some background: by the early 20th century, the U.S. had experienced the rapid growth of industrialization, communication, technology, and consumerism. Vast webs of railroads stretched to all corners of the country. People were increasingly moving to cities for work. The pace of life in general was speeding up, and young people — especially young women — were pondering what it meant to be “modern.”
Fashion was changing, too. The hourglass corsets of the 1890s had evolved into the “S-curve” silhouette of the 1900s, which in turn led to the looser waists and tapering skirts of the Edwardian era. A growing interest in sports (helped along by fitness models like Annette Kellerman) and the massive popularity of dancing encouraged the design of ever-shorter and looser dresses that became the norm by the 1920s. Famous ballroom dancer Irene Castle bobbed her hair in 1915, a daring “modern” look which eventually snowballed into a 1920s craze.
The word “flapper” itself, a 1910s slang term for an antsy teenage girl, became popular too, and was soon a recognizable stage “type.” And thus, it wasn’t long before these young flappers were beginning to show up in motion pictures, although it would take a few years to evolve into the bobbed young modern we recognize today. A good example is Olive Thomas’s The Flapper (1920), where young Olive still sports Mary Pickford-style curls but tries to adopt “modern” fashions to try and pass as “Ohhh, about twenty.”
One of the earliest actresses to be identified with the flapper type was Gladys Walton, who got her start in films in 1920 after being spotted by a talent scout. She soon specialized in “madcap” daughters, slangy shopgirls, and other impetuous young characters in dozens of features with names like Pink Tights (1920), The Guttersnipe (1922), and The Wise Kid (1922). Her studio advertised her as “The Little Queen of the Flappers.”
Another actress who became strongly identified with flappers early on was the vivacious Marie Prevost, a former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty. Flapper-themed films like Moonlit Follies (1921) and The Dangerous Little Demon (1922) and her work for the famed director Ernest Lubitsch in mid-1920s helped make her a major star of the Jazz Age. Other actresses considered early flapper types were Viola Dana, Dorothy Gish and Clarine Seymour (who unfortunately passed away in 1920).
1922 seems to have been a turning point for flapper culture. Awareness of these young “moderns” was then at a peak. They were widely discussed in newspapers and magazines, sometimes critically and sometimes glowingly. There were flapper cartoon characters, flapper-themed songs, and plenty of cheeky slang was entering the public lexicon. And, of course, the new youth culture was a hot trend in Hollywoodland films.
If we can point to one actress who was the biggest influence on the flapper genre overall, it was certainly Colleen Moore. An ambitious, optimistic young gal from Michigan, she got her start in Hollywood in 1917. After steady work playing a series of ingenues and love interests, she convinced her producer to buy the rights to the spicy popular novel Flaming Youth. Her performance as the “unconventional” main character Pat Fentriss–complete with Colleen’s newly-cut Dutch bob–made her a sensation upon the film’s 1924 release. F. Scott Fitzgerald himself would famously write, “I was the spark that lit up flaming youth, and Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.”
Hot on the heels of Moore’s success was Clara Bow, who also achieved major stardom in the mid-1920s after her breakout role in The Plastic Age (1925). Sexy, bubbly, and quick to sock any misbehaving swains, Bow’s screen image was the perfect embodiment of the modern flapper to her countless fans — she was even dubbed the “It” Girl. Her sparkling personality makes her an icon of the era to this day.
Flapper films, from Walton’s The Wise Kid (1922) to Bow’s It (1927), had certain elements in common: flappers were confident, fun-loving, energetic, and loyal. They loved to dance and flirt, and they often put on a facade of being naughty but were usually good girls at heart. In Moore’s Why Be Good? (1929) her character Pert assures her mother: “Sure I’m good…but I have an awful time hiding it. I’d be disgraced if it were ever found out!”
Hand-in-hand with flapper flicks were college films, which depicted college life revolving around football games and dances with hardly a coursebook in sight. There were “society” pictures like Joan Crawford’s Our Modern Maidens (1929), featuring expensive parties in fabulous Art Deco mansions. And there were numerous spoofs of flapper culture too — in 1925 there was even a “Sheiks and Shebas” comedy series. You can’t help wondering whether films were imitating real-life flappers, or whether flappers were modeling themselves after what they saw onscreen.
Flapper culture was arguably big business for Hollywood right up to the end of the Jazz Age, and Hollywood in turn certainly had a major influence on flapper fashions and popular pastimes. By the 1930s the fun-loving characters had evolved into the wisecracking working girls, cynical dames, and high-spirited screwball comediennes of the Depression era, and the Roaring Twenties flapper was considered out of date. But her unique style and zest for life continues to have wide appeal today, and her spirit certainly lives on in surviving silent films.
–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.