Three Jazz Age Films

"How Hollywood Saw the Reckless Youth of the 1920's "

by Tim Lussier

As two carloads of young people race through the night on a country road, the title reads "Sons and daughters of the American Evolution." A humorous play on words, yes, but this 1928 film makes a very keen observation that in the 10 years since the end of World War I, America, and its youth in particular, had undergone a remarkable societal evolution.

After World War I, Victorian attitudes were thrown aside by youth, and the decade that followed became known as "The Jazz Age." A lost film, "Flaming Youth" (1923) is generally considered the first of the "flapper" movies, and with this came filmdom's introduction to the Jazz Age and an onrush of films depicting a generation of short skirts, bathtub gin, jazz music, petting parties, declining morals and flaunted authority. Hollywood is always quick to pick up on these "trends" and embellish them beyond reality - somewhat of a hyperbole of life - and the remaining years of the decade are resplendent with such picturizations.

Three excellent Jazz Age films from the 1920's are "The Mad Whirl" (1924) with May McAvoy and Jack Mulhall, "The Plastic Age" (1925) with Clara Bow and Donald Keith, and "Walking Back" (1928) with Richard Walling and Sue Carol, and all three are available for viewing today.

One of many common threads in these films is that the main characters learn a valuable lesson from their travails - that is, a less reckless and more conservative lifestyle is to their benefit. And of course, being Hollywood's version of the lifestyles of the youth of the Jazz Age, the believability level is somewhat stretched in each one.

This is especially true in "The Mad Whirl." Two very divergent worlds clash when May McAvoy's Cathleen Gillis falls in love with Jack Mulhall's Jack Herrington. Cathleen's father runs an ice cream shop, is a very religious man, and a stern but loving father. Cathleen is an obedient daughter who is very conservative in her views, as well. Jack's life, on the other hand, is a daily routine of wild parties hosted by his parents in their home. The parents feel Jack is better off if they are a "companion" to him and his friends - which means providing bootleg whiskey and a place to have all-night parties. Although Jack promises Cathleen he will reform, he backslides several times during the course of the movie. In the end, however, he is reformed by Cathleen's love, and they elope. Jack's parents also reform following the elopement and a stern lecture from Mr. Gillis. As noted, believability was not Hollywood's forte.

"The Plastic Age" probably provides a more universal, and, therefore, believable, scenario. The conflict presented in this movie has been occurring as long as kids have been going off to college - that of a well-behaved, conservatively-brought up student who is swept away into a "wilder" lifestyle once away from home and the influence of his parents. Hugh Carver (Donald Keith) is just such a student. He was a star track and football player at his prep school and has a stern father who expects his son to go to his college alma mater and continue his athletic prowess.

However, Hugh meets Cynthia Day (Clara Bow) who is the epitome of a "jazz baby" of the twenties. When she convinces him to go for a moonlight walk instead of studying - and gets his first kiss from her - he becomes completely obsessed with this lively sprite. Consequently, studying and practicing for athletic competitions become much less important to him. Early in their sophomore year, however, Cynthia concludes she is not good for Hugh and nobly brings their relationship to an end. Although in love with one another, they remain apart through the rest of their college days. During this time apart, of course, Cynthia sees the error of her ways, and, when they are reunited after graduation, we can feel comfortable that she and Hugh will lead "respectable" lives.

"Walking Back" takes the hardest look at the youth of the day. "Smoke" Thatcher (Richard Walling) slips a hip flask in his pocket and goes to get the keys to his father's car. However, his father has just gotten a note from "Smoke's" principal that he is failing three of his courses. Use of the car is denied, and he is forbidden to leave the house. Angered by his father's edict and afraid his "jazz baby" girlfriend, Patsy Schuyler (Sue Carol), will be taken by another beau, "Smoke" defies his father and storms out of the house. He "borrows" an absent neighbor's car and goes to the party at a night spot in the country. There, he gets into a confrontation with his drunken rival, and they decide to settle the dispute with a chicken/demolition derby contest with their cars. Although "Smoke" wins the contest, he has ruined his neighbor's car and now must deal with all of the problems his rebellion has caused him. All ends happily, of course, with "Smoke" getting the money to pay for the car and being reunited with his father, but not before learning his lesson and vowing to henceforth be the obedient son.

Actually, both "The Mad Whirl" and "The Plastic Age" were made before the Jazz Age had gotten a full head of steam, but "Walking Back" was made almost at its peak and right before the stock market crash and the Depression brought about its sudden demise. The opening scenes of "Walking Back" make no mistake about the theme of the story. We are immediately treated to a montage of scenes including dancing legs, pianos playing, drinks being mixed and car engines racing. This then dissolves to two carloads of young people racing down a country road. One car has a blowout and veers into a ditch. The other carload of youth then get out and begin dancing around the wreck. From there, they steal a truck to get to the nearest "joint" serving bootleg booze, aptly named Ptomaine Charlie's. While all this is taking place, several film titles are superimposed over the action posing questions such as "Vicious - or just wild?," "Godless - or just graceless?," "Shameless - or just young?," "Lawless - or just reckless?"

Of course, the parents are not always presented as upstanding, moral citizens in these films either, and the message given the viewer is that this is actually the crux of the problem. For example, Jack Herrington's parents provide the booze and the place to party for all his young friends. They carry on clandestine affairs with younger partners which they keep from each other. The film also gives no credence to their "companion" philosophy as the best way to raise their son. A title tells us that the mother "does at 40 what she was not allowed to do at 20," and that the father has been "bitten by the jazz bug at 60."

After "Smoke" storms out of the house in "Walking Back," his father declares to his wife, "He's lawless!" At that moment the maid comes in with the announcement, "Your bootlegger's here." A concise but telling comment that gives us great insight into the root of some of "Smoke's" attitudes.

A title card in "The Mad Whirl" offers a disease metaphor-commentary on the children and the parents swept up on the Jazz Age. It states, "Jazz - a new form of measles which makes children middle-aged at 20 and parents childish at 50."

Of course, having been produced in the 1920's and considering the Hays Office restrictions and just how much the mores of the nation would allow, much is left to conjecture in these films that is not portrayed on the screen. In none of the three films above do we see the effects of alcoholism on the characters that such a lifestyle would certainly create. "The Mad Whirl" comes closest with Jack's constant backsliding, but even this film leads us to believe that the cure for his alcoholism is simply a firm resolve and the love of a girl.

Also, because we are privy to no more than a young man's desire for a moonlight kiss in any of these films, the question is raised in the viewer's mind about the sexual promiscuity of these young people. Molly Haskell in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1974), says, ". . . generally, the American flapper was, by definition, only superficially uninhibited. She was the middle class (whether upper or lower) daughter of puritans, and she would pass this heritage on to her own daughters and granddaughters. As the flaming incarnation of the flapper spirit, Clara Bow suggests sensuality and wildness but doesn't stray any farther from the straight and narrow than the distance of a long cigarette holder or a midnight joy ride." So, are we to believe there is no promiscuity among these young people coupled with the consequences that inevitably arise from such behavior? Regardless of what we believe, Haskell is correct in that Hollywood's presentation of young people does depict them as wild and fun-loving but essentially pure.

Certainly these are just three of dozens of films churned out during the 1920's that give us Hollywood's view of what the Jazz Age was all about. As Lewis Jacobs commented in The Rise of the American Film (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939), "Thus began that remarkable series of jazz-age pictures . . . which, speaking for the hedonism of a nation on the wave of prosperity, helped to set new styles in social behavior and reflected the new standards of living. The old order now crumbled away entirely. The screen world became crowded with dancing mothers, flaming youth, jazz babies, cake eaters, flappers. Revolution in etiquette, culture, and conduct generally broke out in this new film domain of electrified apartments, Bagdadian bathtubs, seductive boudoirs, hilarious speakeasies, nightclubs, and petting parties. Movies, like the tabloids and the confession and sex magazines, now booming, gave their all to the task of giving America sensations."

As someone once said, the best films about the twenties were made after the twenties because, by that time, filmmakers had gained some perspective on the decade. That may or may not be true. However, it is obvious we have to accept Hollywood's presentation of the decade with our "tongue in cheek" and, regardless of how accurate they may be, films such as those mentioned above are the best representation we have today of that remarkable "American Evolution."


copyright 1999 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.

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