Silent film had three Ur-Flappers: three actresses who epitomized the New Young Woman of the '20s - bright, bold, carefree, insouciant, jazz-mad, bee-stung lipped, cloche-hatted, opinionated, bohemian, collegiate, garter-belted, gin-stoked, sexy. These women broke free of the image constraints of their earlier sisters in the trade, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, in a conscious attempt to capture the image of the post-war modern young woman. In doing so, they shaped our iconography of the Jazz Age.
Clara Bow broke free of her vapid stock ingenue roles by '25 and became the 'It' Girl: the epitome of Brooklyn sass, manic Jazz Age energy and guilt-free sex appeal.
Louise Brooks, a cool, beautiful enigma, the American Garbo, broke free of the Hollywood studio system altogether by the late-'20s to make her celebrated 'Lulu' films for G. W. Pabst in Germany.
Both Bow and Brooks have been celebrated in theatrical and home entertainment reissues of their work.
But there's a third Ur-Flapper who hasn't been reissued at all. She shared with Brooks a distinctive pudding bowl haircut which defined the new generation. She may not have been the first actress to wear the China Doll cut, but she popularized it (Brooks copied her). While she wasn't anywhere near as sexy as Clara Bow, she went head-to-head with her at the height of Bow's popularity. She bridged the Pickford/Gish to Bow/Brooks eras, making some thirty films between '17 and '22. She was one of the most gifted comedic actresses of the silent era, and she almost single-handedly kicked off the Flapper craze in '23, in one film, FLAMING YOUTH - now lost.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of her: "I was the spark that lit up FLAMING YOUTH, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble".
Moore appeared in many films, but three of her films from '26 and '27 typify her appeal in its purest form. They're the Colleeniad, the distilled essence of the appeal of this woefully neglected silent film star: ELLA CINDERS ['26], IRENE ['26], and ORCHIDS AND ERMINE ('27)
"Ella Cinders" (1926) was an adaptation of a popular comic strip of the period. As the title indicates, it's the Cinderella story in modern dress. Colleen is the put-upon maid-of-all-sorts for a wicked mother and two wretched stepsisters. The Prince is a rich man's modest son; there's a fancy dress ball in the form of a contest to see which small town girl gets a screen test; and the Kingdom is Hollywood itself.
It should be made plain right off that ELLA CINDERS isn't really a Jazz Age film at all. The fairy tale basis isn't transformed into a consciously Jazz Age setting. ELLA CINDERS is more in the mold of the "small town girl makes good" story. But CINDERS gets at the heart of what makes Moore so appealing.
First there's the image: dowdy, as skinny as Olive Oyl, plaintive, wistful and shy, more Zasu Pitts than Clara Bow. Moore was "the girl next door" in her best films - gawky, befuddled, disarmingly gentle, pretty in a distinctive way without being a sex threat, pert and cute. You want to cuddle her before you kiss her. There's a winning sweetness and modest decency to Moore's persona which is not altogether different from the virginal purity of Lillian Gish or the spunky child/woman guilelessness of Mary Pickford. Moore was loveable and sweet, and she exploited her near-good looks in canny ways throughout her work.
Then there are the comedic skills. Moore was
a great reaction comic - it's not so much what she did as her
gentle, befuddled response to things around that keys her comedy.
Most of the female comics, from Mabel Normand to Constance Talmadge
to Colleen Moore to Anita Garvin to Bebe Daniels to Marion Davies,
didn't play it rough and tumble like Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and
the rest of the male comedy stars. The women weren't knockabout
artists. The comedy came from the play of facial expressions.
omedy on the rebound.
Colleen exploited her gawky/beautiful face to perfection. She can mug with the best of them, most famously in ELLA CINDERS in the trick shot where she's practicing eye movements from a book on how to be a movie star. One eye exercise involves a play on Ben Turpin's famous crossed eyes, and a split screen effect allows Moore to roll her eyes wildly in all directions at once.
Moore needs to baby sit to earn enough money to pay for a photographer's session for her entrance in the photo contest. She's shown entertaining the children by performing a routine straight out of Chaplin's THE GOLD RUSH ['25] - a variant of the classic "dance of the bun rolls" segment. Moore pulls off the routine with such aplomb that you forgive her the theft. Actually, Roscoe Arbuckle performed the bun roll dance before Chaplin, so, technically, it's a theft of a theft.
There's a parody of one of her famous rivals. When Moore poses for the photographer, she decides to drape a veil over her head and hold a white rose: a good-natured send-up of the "plaintive virgin" poses of Lillian Gish. When the photographer nixes the veil and rose pose, Moore sets herself for the photo - only to have a pesky fly land on her nose. She goes cross-eyed and attempts to blow the fly off its perch. Of course, that pose becomes the entry in the photo contest.
Moore even shares the stage with another First National star: the great comedian Harry Langdon. While in a Hollywood studio Moore has to evade a studio guard. She finds herself on the set of a Langdon picture. Harry himself, in full character, bumps into her. There's a scene where Moore and Langdon react to each other, each in the befuddled, deliberate manner that made both famous. It's like watching an uncanny brother and sister act.
Colleen Moore was star enough not to be so gracious in sharing the stage with every Hollywood personality. In '24, an up-and-coming Clara Bow was to appear with Moore in a film called PAINTED PEOPLE. Bow was to play Moore's kid sister. According to Moore, Bow insisted on playing Moore's part, and when Bow couldn't get her way she backed out of the film.
According to Bow, as told in David Stenn's bio of Bow, RUNNIN' WILD, Bow and Moore were in a scene together, and director Clarence Badger called for close-ups. "Not for her," said Moore, indicating that the only actress who would be getting close-ups in this scene would be Colleen Moore. Moore knew a born upstager when she saw one. Bow complained that Moore was hogging the spotlight; that Moore was a big star, and that Bow had worked hard and needed the exposure. Moore was also the wife of the producer, John McCormick, so Badger shot close-ups of Moore alone. Bow lost that argument, but not the war. Bow walked off, got some surgery performed which prevented her from returning to the production where she had worked for three weeks (according to Bow's biographer Stenn; three days, according to Moore). This caused Moore to re-shoot scenes, prolonging the production and going overbudget - as Bow had intended.
"Irene" (1926), another First National hit for Colleen, exploited a stereotype associated with silent Hollywood in general and Moore in particular. Colleen Moore's real name was Kathleen Morrison, but Colleen Moore fit in nicely with the stock image of the poor but adorable Irish family: lots of scrappy but lovable kids; the drunk but lovable da, the irascible but lovable ma; the tenement and the snooty rich folk; and the sweet, 'dacent' girl who wants to do a little better in the world than the tenement. As stereotypes go, it's not as obnoxious as the wheedling Jewish pawnbroker or the superstitious, shiftless black man, but it's a staple of the period. It helps somewhat when you've got expert comedic talent like old Sennett hands Kate Price as the ma and Charley Murray as the da. They engage in some 'foine' comic turns in IRENE.
IRENE has the kind of grace notes that you find sneaking up on you in Hollywood's "shopgirl" comedies. "Shopgirl" comedies are just that: modest films about the lives of average young women clerking in department stores or working as waitresses or otherwise punching the clock. Clara Bow's IT ('27) is a "shopgirl" comedy. Bow's MANTRAP ('26) starts out as a "shopgirl" comedy with Bow playing a vivacious manicurist at a barber shop, but the film then veers into its own strange "cabin in the woods" territory. Louise Brooks' LOVE 'EM AND LEAVE 'EM ('26) is a "shopgirl" comedy. Gloria Swanson's MANHANDLED ('24) starts off with a great "shopgirl" comedy sequence - Swanson fighting subway traffic. Even Pickford made a "shopgirl" comedy in the late '20s - a great one, as a matter of fact: MY BEST GIRL ('27). But Moore may have made the best "shopgirl" comedies of them all, because her gawky/gorgeous persona was so perfectly suited to the genre.
In IRENE, there's her rebuff of a swell at a little soiree he's throwing at his love shack. Colleen, always pure at heart, takes to the road where she meets up with another good girl who's spurned her date for the evening. They're faced with a long, desultory walk home. Fortunately Moore has a pair of roller skates. They each take one skate and, leaning against one another, push each other off down the road. The economy of motion is as pleasing as the cleverness of the gag.
There's a close-up of what appears to be Colleen asleep in bed. The pull-back shot: she's in bed in a department store window, demonstrating the comfort of the bedding. Watch her facial expressions in this scene: she goes through a routine of demonstrating the comforts of the product in a style which anticipates Lucille Ball in Ball's classic Vegameatavitamin routine.
Moore has to deliver packages to a mansion. Once there, reveling in the luxury, she engages in a makeshift fashion session, draping a drape over herself and fashioning a hat out of a lampshade. Moore swoons in the make-believe finery, and we get to see her peekaboo sensuousness. Moore's face in swooning repose suggests the purr of a contented kitten. It's sweetly sexy.
The swishy owner of a couture boutique takes Moore and her tenement pals on, reluctantly, as fashion models. Moore has a sustained scene on a revolving fashion platform where the owner attempts frantically to costume her as the platform revolves round and round. It may be her finest sustained comic sequence.
"Orchids and Ermine" (1927) is another "shopgirl" comedy, but here we see how Moore artfully negotiates a persona which you would think would prove problematic. The flapper as golddigger was not something you'd expect from the determinedly modest Moore. The golddigger was part of the flapper image as much as the skirt, the beads, and the stockings: Anita Loos' GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES; Marion Davies and her Sugar Daddy, William Randolph Hearst; Peggy Hopkins Joyce and her greatest role, Peggy Hopkins Joyce.
In ORCHIDS AND ERMINE, Moore's character is determined to land a Sugar Daddy, but she's also her usual sweet and loveable self. Louise Brooks, an Ice Goddess, can play a heartless golddigger in LOVE 'EM AND LEAVE 'EM ('26) and get away with it. Moore didn't have that advantage.
So the plot in ORCHIDS has to be played out gingerly. Moore can't be too grabby - that would threaten her image. She can't be too good and a golddigger - that doesn't make sense. So Moore's got to fall in love with a Sugar Daddy she mistakes for someone modest - meaning she has to really fall in love with him, not pretend to fall in love with him for his money. She's got to remain Cinderella at heart. At the same time, she has to fall for a Sugar Daddy if we're going to have a happy ending. Moore's got to be ambitious, but not too ambitious - more wistful than ambitious. All of this may be why the plot in ORCHIDS crisscrosses in all sorts of directions before settling itself down to the requisite happy ending.
It's a witty film and the one Moore film which best typifies the Fitzgeraldian Jazz Age. The eminent film historian William K. Everson, in his book on screwball comedy, considered ORCHIDS AND ERMINE to be a classic and one of the silent precursors to the great screwball films of the '30s.
Jack Mulhall, wearing pince-nez and looking and acting much like the Harold Lloyd of GIRL SHY ('24), is the Sugar Daddy, an heir to an oil fortune. The scenes between Moore and Mulhall, in their delicate blend of romance and comedy, are reminiscent of the Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston scenes in Lloyd's comedies.
Moore starts off as a receptionist at a cement yard and leaves to become the phone operator at a swank Manhattan hotel, and most of her scenes take place in the hotel. A midget comes by and asks Moore for information. Moore does a great take, looking around in complete wonderment at where this voice is coming from. It's coming from Mickey Rooney, then six years old. He's strutting around in a tuxedo, smoking a cigar.
There's a party thrown on a Long Island mansion to which Moore tags along with her more overtly golddigging rival, Gwen Lee. As in IRENE, Moore rebuffs the amorous advances of a couple of old rich buzzards. She's too late to catch the Long Island line back to the City, so she's faced with a long walk home. Fortunately one of the cement yard truck drivers happens by, and Moore hitches a ride. Along the way the truck driver mentions that ditched dates on a Saturday night make for good money. He motions to Moore to open the little door behind him. Moore does so. We see a shot of dozens of dumped golddiggers sitting around in the back of the truck.
Colleen Moore doesn't have many champions. That's a shame. She was one of the finest comedic actresses of an era rich in comic talent. Here's hoping one day she'll get the David Shepard/Kevin Brownlow reissue treatment - and the reappraisal and renewed fan base she deserves.
The Colleen Moore features listed below are available on video. They can be purchased from one or more of the following sources:
Nostalgia Family Video - http://www.nostalgiafamilyvideo.com
Movies Unlimited - http://www.moviesunlimited.com
Facets - http://www.facets.org
LITTLE ORPHANT ANNIE (1918) Directed by Colin Campbell. Cast: Colleen Moore, Thomas Santschi, Harry Lonsdale, Eugenie Besserer, Doris Baker, Lillian Wade, Ben Alexander, Billy Jacobs, James Whitcomb Riley, Mae Gaston, Lillian Hayward, Lafayette McKee. Surrounded by a group of children, poet James Whitcomb Riley narrates the story of Little Orphant Annie, who loses her mother at an early age and is sent to an orphanage. Annie (Moore) charms the other children with her stories of goblins and elves. A rare find - print quality on this subject was only fair to good. 57 minutes Piano #LOACM $10.95
THE SKY PILOT (1921) First National. Dir: King Vidor Cast: John Bowers, Colleen Moore, David Butler, Harry Todd, James Corrigan, & Kathleen Kirkham. In the Canadian Northwest a young minister receives a rough reception until he proves himself. 68 Min. #1-18-1 $16.95
BROKEN HEARTS OF BROADWAY (1923) Irving Cummings Prod. Dir: Irving Cummings Cast: Colleen Moore, John Walker, Alice Lake, Tully Marshall, Kate Price, Creighton Hale. Based on the 1917 story by James Kyrle MacCurdy. Stage-struck country girl Mary Ellis (Colleen) arrives in New York and gets a job in the chorus line. She finds in order to get ahead she must accept the advances of her employers. She rejects these advances and is later falsely accused of the murder of the showowner's friend. All new transfer with new music score featuring the original theme music. 86 minutes #BHOB $18.95
(Author's note: the preceding films are representative
of CM in her "Gish waif" phase; they're not truly representative
of CM '20s icon. Also, the print quality of LITTLE ORPHANT ANNIE
is really poor).
ELLA CINDERS (1926) Dir: Alfred E. Green Cast: Colleen Moore, Lloyd Hughes, Vera Lewis, Doris Baker, Emily Gerdes, Jed Prouty, Jack Duffy, Alfred E. Green, & Harry Langdon. Ella wins a movie contest and goes to Hollywood to become a star. Based on the comic strip "Cinderella in the Movies". New transfer from an improved print with remastered music score. 63 minutes #ECCM $16.95
(Currently Unavailble) IRENE (1926)
First National. Dir: Alfred E. Green. Cast: Colleen Moore, Lloyd
Hughes, George K. Arthur, Charles Murray, Kate Price, Ida Darling,
Eva Novak, Edward Earle. This wistful comedy as Irish lass (Colleen)
looking for work in New York City. The Technicolor sequence for
show is included although colors have faded. New release you won't want to miss. 93 minutes #ICM $19.95
TWINKLETOES (1926) First National. Directed by Charles Brabin. Cast: Colleen Moore, Kenneth Harlan, Tully Marshall, Gladys Brockwell, Lucien Littlefield, Warner Oland, John Philip Kolb, Julianne Johnston, William McDonald. Twinkletoes (Moore), a child of the London Limehouse district, dances for the crowd. She falls for a married boxer and tries her best to resist her feeling, but when he saves her from an attack one night she can resist her feeling, but when he saves her from an attack one night she can [Lilac Time]resist no longer. 78 minutes Piano Score #TCM $19.95
ORCHIDS AND ERMINE (1927) Directed by Alfred Santell. Cast: Colleen Moore, Jack Mulhall, Sam Hardy, Gwen Lee, Alma Bennett, Hedda Hopper, Kate Price. A telephone operator, after disconcerting experiences with genuine and pseudo Midases, gives up her dream of sporting Orchids and Ermine. Mickey Rooney also appears as a lecherous midget. New release - great comedy. 62 minutes #O&ECM $16.95
(Currently Unavailable) LILAC TIME (1928) First National Pictures. Directed by George Fitzmaurice. Cast: Colleen Moore, Gary Cooper, Burr McIntosh, George Cooper, Cleve Moore, Kathryn McGuire, Eugenie Besserer, Dick Grace, Stuart Knox. The classic story of WWI aviators and the air battles over France. 93 minutes #LTCM $19.95
SILENT STAR (New York: DoubleDay & Co., 1968) is Moore's out-of-print autobiography.
by Jeanine Basinger (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), has a chapter entitled
"Flappers: Colleen Moore and Clara Bow" as well as chapters
on Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, Douglas Fairanks, the Talmadges,
William S. Hart and Tom Mix, Rudolph Valentino, Lon Chaney and
more. May be ordered by clicking on the Amazon link below.
Moore had a serious hobby: collecting miniatures for her doll house. Eventually the doll house was donated to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. A pictorial exploration of this miniature wonder has been published: WITHIN THE FAIRY CASTLE: COLLEEN MOORE'S DOLL HOUSE (Bulfinch Press, 1998, ISBN: 0821225197). In the "library" of the doll house you'll find, among other things, F. Scott Fitzgerald's quote about Colleen cited above.
The magazine FILMS OF THE GOLDEN AGE, Vol. 16, Spring '99, has a terrific article by Eve Golden on Moore. Accompanying the article is a filmography by Richard E. Braff. You can order this back issue at http://www.classicimages.com.
Finally, there's a great interview with Moore in William M. Drew's book, SPEAKING OF SILENTS: FIRST LADIES OF THE SCREEN (paperback: Vestal Press,1989, ISBN 0911572813). Moore's version of her run-in with Clara Bow appears there. For an entirely different version, see David Stenn's out-of-print biography of Clara Bow, RUNNIN' WILD (Doubleday, 1988).
copyright 1999 by Rick Levinson. All rights reserved
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