Thursday, February 15, 2018

The 1920s - Then and Now series #3 - Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929)

In Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929),  Joan Crawford epitomizes the daring flapper, living only for the moment, the eternal symbol (one of many glitzy symbols) of the 1920s. We continue today with part 3 of our series on the 1920s – Then and Now.

Novelist-turned-Hollywood-writer F. Scott Fitzgerald saw in Joan Crawford the essence of the flapper, as he is noted to have remarked:

Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.

He might have been describing her in these two movies.  Our Dancing Daughters stars Joan as a high-octane flapper or “modern,” her name for the first time above the title.  This movie and Our Modern Maidens are "modern" morality plays of sorts – Joan Crawford is not so much a scandalous woman but a survivor on her own terms in a fast-paced world. There is something brave and admirable about her, despite the implied warning about a life of burning the candle at both ends.

We open on Joan Crawford during a frenetic shimmy as she changes into a party frock for an evening out. Her well-to-do parents, played by Dorothy Cumming and Huntley Gordon, give her free reign, and she adores them. They have a great relationship.

This is immediately contrasted with the less well-off family of a conniving mother and daughter played by Kathlyn Williams and Anita Page. Her mother wants Anita to marry rich and passes on the age-old advice that men want wives who are virtuous – but to get them one must be only virtuous-appearing and yet not so virtuous that one fails to entrap a male and drag him to the altar. This will happen to our hero Johnny Mack Brown, the millionaire’s son.

Life is a whirlwind of parties for Joan and her “crowd.” Dorothy Sebastian plays Beatrice, a friend with a “past” which she loathes to confess to her intended, played by Nils Asther. She eventually does confess, he forgives her, they are happily married, but reminders of her past are thrown in her path every moment, straining her marriage. It is not smooth sailing for those who are not virtuous to begin with, even if their friends and their families give them pass.

I’d have to say my favorite character is played by Edward J. Nugent, who also appears in Our Modern Maidens as a slick-haired callow youth with a smart line, a boyish worthlessness, and a tennis sweater.  He has enormous personality and plays to the camera very well.  I get a kick out of him.

When we first meet Joan getting dressed to go to her party, she goes downstairs – every private home and every public ballroom is dripping with Art Deco ornamentation – she has a companionable drink with her father, and is toasted by three young men all standing at attention in their tuxedos. Each offers her a sip from his glass, and she obliges because she is Diana the famed huntress – not of men, but of life and good times.

When she meets Johnny Mack Brown, she does not immediately throw herself at him but she flirts with him and they develop feelings for each other. Anita Page, however, openly throws herself at him in pseudo-virtuous manner – always insinuating herself in between Joan and Johnny.

Johnny is clearly smitten with Joan, but he is wary about her goodtime girl reputation, and he feels he must uphold the family honor by considering the matter very carefully. In the meantime, on an outing with the fake good girl Anita Page, she traps him, with the help of her conniving mother, into not so much proposing to her as refusing to embarrass her in public by saying, “Hold the phone, I never asked you to marry me.”  He is too much of a gentleman for that.

Joan, of course, is crushed. And she is angry, because she feels that even though she has led life in the fast lane, she has never lied about herself or attempted to trick anybody into marrying her.

She lashes out at Anita Page and her "nasty little mind.” She is disappointed in Johnny Mack Brown but she doesn’t blame him. She understands that one must play by the rules or at least accept the consequences for not doing so. Anita marries Johnny, but they are miserable. She never loved him, she just loves his money and she has grown bored stiff being the wife of the millionaire’s son. She runs around on him.

In a climactic scene at a party, she catches Johnny Mack Brown and Joan having a quiet conversation and accuses them of infidelity.  She has had a little too much to drink. 

At the bottom of a very long staircase are three scrubwomen, and she mocks them in a way that will engender our pity for her. She asks them why they are working, and thinking of her own self-interested mother, “Don’t you have pretty daughters?” She knows she has been prostituted by her mother for a cushy life. Here we see what will be a theme in later decades for movies: The younger generation blaming the elder.

While quite drunk, Anita will fall down the very long set of stairs, landing at the feet of three scrub women in a terribly sad end to her life.

We cut to two years later when Joan returns from Europe and she will marry Johnny Mack Brown. Moral of the story? To thine own self be true. And suffer the consequences.

Our Modern Maidens is not the sequel we might expect, at least not in terms of having the same characters, but there is the continued theme of what’s a flapper to do to find true love?

Here, Joan Crawford is called Billie, and an interesting point of trivia is that she went by the nickname of Billie as a kid, and this is what her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., called her. This movie capitalizes on their real-life romance by putting young Doug in the role of her boyfriend.

The movie starts on the night of the prom where Joan is a senior at an exclusive girls' school – again she is the rich, spoiled flapper with the zest for living. Two jalopies careen down the road at night nearly causing a traffic accident, and they pull up and have an impromptu prom on the side of the road, dancing to the music on the car radio. This is a generation besotted with technology, radio and cars in a way that baffled their elders. Our friend Edward J. Nugent is along for the ride in this movie as well, only here he plays Reg. Playing fellows named Freddie or Reg pretty much indicates this is going to be a guy with a hip flask in the pocket of his white flannel tennis pants.

Anita Page is back along for the ride, only this time she’s not the rival nasty girl, she’s Joan’s good friend named Kentucky. She is sweet, innocent, naïve, and as loyal as a hound dog. She also has an unspoken crush on Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and her infatuation with him is rather heartbreaking.

Just as the title suggests, these young women are “modern." These are modern maidens who crash life like they are crashing a party. On the train, Joan meets Rod La Rocque, who is a wealthy man well connected in government. It seems that upon graduation from college Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. wants to pursue a career in the diplomatic corps. They believe that Rod La Rocque can open doors for them and get him a post in Paris – Paris in the 1920s—this is about the only flirtation we get with the famed expatriates of the decade.

Joan Crawford flirts shamelessly with Rod La Rocque in order to wheedle a position out of him for Doug, and Doug, though he has misgivings, goes along with it.

Anita Page is also seen in many scenes strumming a ukulele. So far we are meeting our quota of 1920s images.

At a party, again in the giant Art Deco ballroom, Joan is the center of attention, dancing herself silly, playing drums, in a whirlwind of jazz. Douglas get the spotlight, too, doing impressions—silent impressions – of John Barrymore and Jack Gilbert and Robin Hood, perhaps a take on his father? Joan disappears for a moment and then returns in a scanty outfit with a wild pattern and performs not just for the crowd but specifically for Rod La Rocque in a dramatic scene.

Douglas knows she’s going over the top for his sake and he feels uncomfortable with it but assuages his discomfort by having a brief fling with Kentucky, who has such a crush on him. He feels like a cad. “I was cad!” The title card tells us.

Meanwhile, Joan gets herself invited to Rod’s hunting lodge, a rustic venue with knives, guns and whips on the walls, guy stuff. Whips? He is in love with her and he agrees to help Doug get a position in Paris because she affirms that Doug is only a friend of hers. However, after the appointment to Paris, Rod La Rocque reads in the newspaper that Doug and Joan are going to be married. Well now, isn’t this awkward.

She tries to apologize for shamelessly using him and leading him on, but he, hurt and angry, sets her up at his hunting lodge for a fate worse than death, and when she shrinks from him, he goads her, “What’s the matter? I thought you were a 'modern'!” Wearing nothing but his bathrobe (clothes got all wet in the rain), she submits to him because she feels she owes him, but he pulls back and she admiringly says, “I knew you were too decent.”

He throws it back in her face. “It’s not decency. I just don’t want you.” It is a great line and she is as shattered as she is relieved, because she is ashamed.

Doug and Joan have an opulent wedding, but Kentucky is clearly upset and not just because she is losing Doug. Finally, Joan gets the truth out of her when Joan discovers a doctor’s appointment card for “Mrs.” Kentucky. This is movie code for Kentucky has gone to a GYN and she is pregnant.

“I didn’t want you to know, Billie!” Kentucky apparently wants to spare both her friends and when Doug enters to collect his bride and go on the honeymoon, he is flummoxed because he didn’t know Kentucky was pregnant after their one fling either. “You poor, brave little kid!” Doug says.  Nobody seems to realize how humiliating this sounds, even in a silent movie. 

Unlike Our Dancing Daughters, where Joan paid the price of losing a lover but then eventually gets him back through the convenient death of the third person in the triangle, this movie takes an interesting turn. Joan simply gives Doug to Kentucky. We’re never told if Doug, who is truly fond of Kentucky, really wants to spend the rest of his life married to her.  Nevertheless, this is what Joan does because she loves both of them, and she skips out and pretends to be a true modern, an uncaring, selfish woman with loose morals and no feelings, parading this persona for the sake of the reporters, of her friends, and her father, who washes his hands of her.

“What you think of a girl going on a honeymoon alone. Modern, isn’t it?” For a moment, our Edward J. Nugent steps out of his callow youth role and attempts to stand up to the crowd with her to give her support, but she kindly and sweetly says she is going alone. She will take no one along the path to perdition with her.

She goes off to Paris, but she is eventually joined by Rod, still reading about her in newspapers.  He still loves her, and she will go back with him to his cottage in the Argentine. 

It doesn’t seem like the “modern” thing to do, but perhaps the 1920s flappers were having second thoughts about the whole flapper thing.  Society might have gotten a little tired of the wild party, too.  A huge hangover was coming at the end of 1929.

The decade was notable for being perhaps the first wave of a future norm where the youth of the country seemed to run the show. Their tastes and their interests were catered to, and created, American pop culture.

Both Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., are quite good in this movie, both attractive and able to woo the camera with a glance or a clinch, or, as in Joan’s case, a spirited Charleston, and we can see why Joan Crawford became a star in this role of the flapper. She gets to show a lot of different emotions like selfishness, regret, loyalty, love, shame. She laughs, she cries, she dances.

It’s a silent movie but there are sounds added to the track in which we hear the buzz of a crowd, a radio announcement. There is no dialogue except for what we see on the title cards, but there is incidental background noise, a way to ease us into sound pictures. Our Dancing Daughters made her a star. It has been reported that she climbed out of the lesser roles in Hollywood by making the producers notice her when she moonlighted in dance contests.  She “rocked” the Charleston, and the Black Bottom.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Joan were married just before the movie was released and they were married for four years. But unlike the characters of the “moderns” she played, she was not welcome by Doug’s father, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and stepmother, Mary Pickford, and she felt out of place in their world. Her background was really more like the shop girls that she would portray in the 1930s, beginning with her next film released in 1930, which was considered the third in the trilogy of films, called Our Blushing Brides. That one is a sound film and we see that Joan makes the transition to sound recording very well. She does not play the same character, of course; she plays a department store clerk and her love interest is Robert Montgomery.  When glancing at this trilogy of films, we can see where Joan’s career and film persona was headed, and where the country was going, too.  The flashy “moderns” she played in Our Dancing Daughters and in Our Modern Maidens were left behind in the 1920s.  When the party ended, the flapper had either left the room, or was passed out on the floor.  

In Our Blushing Brides she’s the working girl, who might be Cinderella, or maybe just another dame down on her luck.

Women revolutionized the decade as much as they scandalized it.  Fashions, mores, work force, and the economy rode the waves of women's empowerment.  This was gently satirized in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), as we mentioned in the intro, but our now somewhat condescending view of that era and its women belies the fact that they set the stage for much of the twentieth century.

Come back next Thursday the 22nd when we discuss the last film in our 1920s series, a Marx Brothers romp, The Cocoanuts from 1929.  It reflects not only the zaniness of the 1920s, and of the Marx Brothers brand in particular, but also hints at our near future as it makes fun of the Florida land boom that went bust in the middle 1920s, a forerunner to the terrific stock market crash just a few months after the movie was released.

The first two posts in this series are the intro here, and The Racket (1928).


Caftan Woman said...

I wonder how Joan felt about those days and her image as she matured. Did it seem like yesterday or another life?

When I was a kid my Nana taught us the songs of her youth. I don't know where I learned about them, but I asked her if she was a flapper. She said no, but she was a hockey player and showed us her team picture. There's always a lot more to an era than those stereotypes, but those stereotypes remain because at their core there is a truth to what they represent.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Joan Crawford's unique ability to survive as a top star all those years seemed to hinge on her remaking herself in each decade. I don't know how intentional it was, or if she just had a canny ability to go with the flow. I wonder if she looked back on it, or just kept moving.

Hockey-playing Nana. I love it. The era did seem to influence pretty much everybody, flapper or no. My mother was a child during the decade, too young to be a flapper, yet she wore the bobbed hair. Her mother, who had been a young woman before WWI, and an immigrant to boot, is shown in photos of the day with bobbed hair and a drop-waist dress. My father's mother also bobbed her flaming red hair, to the consternation of her husband. Her reply to me in recounting the story was, "So what? It was MY hair." They were both in thirties, settled married women with children, but the fashion and the attitudes -- at least a little of it -- filtered down.

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