Preferred Pictures B.P. Schulberg Productions
Cast: Clara Bow (Cynthia Day), Donald Keith (Hugh Carver), Gilbert Roland (Carl Peters), Henry B. Walthall (Mr. Carver), Mary Alden (Mrs. Carver), David Butler (Coach James Henley)
Hugh Carver has been a track and football star at his prep school, and when he leaves for Prescott College, his parents expect him to continue his athletic accomplishments. His reputation precedes him at the college, too, and the school has high hopes for his contributions to their athletic program.
Hugh apparently has little or no experience with girls, and when he encounters the "hotsy-totsy" Cynthia Day, she suddenly becomes his first priority in life. As a result, his studies and athletics suffer. When the big 440-yard race comes up, an event in which Hugh set a national prep school record, he comes in dead last. When visited by his parents, his stern father tells him not to return home until he has "made good."
Cynthia, realizing that her partying lifestyle is hurting Hugh, tells him they can't see each other any more. As each year of college passes by, Hugh's athletic performance and grades improve, but he is still in love with Cynthia. Finally, in his senior year, the team is depending heavily on Hugh to help them win the big football game, and the hopes of the two getting back together seem slim.
"The Plastic Age" (1925) was based on a book of the same name written by Dartmouth professor Percy Marks and published in 1922. According to Bow biographer David Stenn in Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild (Doubleday, 1988), Marks was a "popular novelist whose fiction chronicled his students, the sheiks and flappers who danced to the 'jungle rhythm' of jazz, drank from silver flasks, and debated whether to 'go the limit.'" According to Stenn, producer Ben Schulberg was familiar with the novel and realized three very commercial topics were embodied in the story: school, sports and sex. He was also looking for a new vehicle for his protege, Clara Bow, and felt "The Plastic Age" included the ingredients to "catapult her to stardom." It did just that.
Bow was no newcomer to films. She had made 28 features since 1922. At the time of "The Plastic Age," she was working for Schulberg's Preferred Films and had appeared in fifteen of her 28 films that year (1925) alone, "The Plastic Age" being the last to be released. Even though she had appeared in over two dozen films up to that time, it is "The Plastic Age" that is credited with elevating her to the ranks of superstardom.
But it was the power of Bow's performance and her on-screen magnetism that accomplished this feat, not the merits of the story. In reading the reviews of the time, it is obvious the critics were more taken with Bow than the story line. Stenn noted, ". . . the impact of Clara's performance in it was already palpable during shooting. As usual, Schulberg had rented a stage at Joseph P. Kennedy's FBO Studios (formerly Robertson-Cole) in Hollywood, and though Clara had worked on many prior movies there, never before had her set been so popular: now actors and technicians from neighboring productions gravitated to 'The Plastic Age' stage as if drawn by its star's sexually magnetic force. When the company traveled to Pomona College in Claremont for location shooting, male extras (one of whom was a young hopeful called Clark Gable (see photo at right)) would greet Clara's appearance each morning with wolf whistles. 'They all bristled up when she walked on the set,' recalled actor David Butler. 'She was a very sexy-looking girl.'"
As for the story, the premise of a good kid gone wrong once he's away at college is a very basic premise. The New York Times reviewer lamented, ". . . it is a shame that the moving picture tradition that all life in the colleges is frothy cannot be broken and a real picture made that will show these puzzled and desperately striving young people as the really are, frivolous and gay, yes, but also earnest to the point of tears and with brilliant conceptions of what life is really like." Be that as it may, the nation was at the height of the flapper age and college football frenzy in 1925, so Marks' novel was perfect for the movie screen.
In addition to good timing, the movie had the sure-sell component of being mildly risqué. In Silent Stars (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), author Jeanine Basinger says, "Clara plays 'the real hotsy-totsy Cynthia Day,' the type of character most associated with her, a playful sexual aggressor who's so full of life and energy and spirit that she's leaping all over the place. It's clearly hinted that this means she is hot where sex is concerned, although the surface presentation is wholesome . . ."
This "wholesome" dalliance with sex appears sporadically throughout the film. Early on Hugh and another freshman are hazed by the upperclassmen and enter a girls' dorm room in their pajamas by way of a balcony. In one moment, Hugh's nightshirt rises a little too high above the knees. We are given a shot of Cynthia raising her eyebrows with a smile. Hugh quickly pulls the nightshirt down -- certainly mild by today's standards, but very "teasing" for 1925.
Also, we are shown that, second to drinking illegal booze, necking (sex?) is a favorite pastime of the students at Prescott College. For example, Cynthia and Hugh go walking one evening, and they encounter several couples in secluded spots. At the party, Hugh discovers roommate Carl in a car in the garage with Cynthia. What are we to assume is the activity that is taking place or that will take place?
In another scene, several young men have gathered in Carl and Hugh's room to tell stories of their experiences with members of the opposite sex. Although there are no intertitles to tell us what is being said, it would be naive to assume the topic was anything else. Actually, credit must be given to director Wesley Ruggles, because in this scene and another in which Hugh's father tells him the facts of life, intertitles would have lessened the impact. The dialogue in these scenes is better left to the imagination of the viewer.
It's not a strong story, but the movie does have some noteworthy points. Although Hugh's roommate Carl is interested in Cynthia, he apparently accepts her interest in Hugh. However, when she breaks her date with him to go to the dance with Hugh, Carl is visibly disturbed. This establishes a key conflict for us, a conflict we know must develop further as the story goes on -- and it does, quickly. At the party, Cynthia disappears, and Hugh finds her necking with Carl in a car. Cynthia prevents a clash between the two by taking Hugh away, but Carl angrily announces he's moving out of the dorm room.
This conflict continues later in the movie when Cynthia and Hugh go to a roadhouse and encounter an intoxicated Carl. We realize these two are about to clash, which, in itself, gives the viewer a sense of anxiousness. However, the scene is also intercut with scenes at the police station where it is announced that a raid will take place on the roadhouse at 11 p.m. The clash, in the form of a fistfight, does come about, and the raid takes place, as well, but it is the moments leading up to this that are the most effective and absorbing for the viewer.
We are also given a secondary conflict in which Hugh's father is so disappointed in his son's academic and athletic performance he orders Hugh out until he "makes good." Veteran actor Henry B. Walthall is excellent in the role of the father, and his sternness is aptly conveyed when he slaps Hugh and then tells him to leave. However, so that Walthall doesn't become a villain in the viewer's eyes, we see him hugging his wife and telling her how difficult it was to take such a harsh stance, but he knew it was something he had to do.
These are fine dramatic moments, but, as noted, it is Bow's performance that puts the film over. Her trademark characteristics -- bubbly, effervescent, adorably (and sexily) cute -- are all there. From the first glimpse we get of her in the dorm room when she enters the scene, she dominates the screen. No other female in the cast comes close. As the New York Times reviewer said, "'The Plastic Age' . . . provides an interesting afternoon's entertainment largely because of Clara Bow. She has all the lissomeness of Lya de Putti, and eyes that would drag any youngster away from his books, and she knows how to use eyes, shoulders, and all the rest of her tiny self in the most effective manner. She radiates an elfin sensuousness." Basinger said, "In 'The Plastic Age,' Clara Bow is Betty Boop in the flesh. With her short hair, big eyes, bouncing body, and boop-a-doop personality, she's as cute as a button. Every time she comes on the screen -- each time in a new outfit -- she lights up everything around her."
Donald Keith does a creditable job in the role of Hugh Carver. Physically, his slim build lends itself well to the role of a track star, but he looks a little out of place on the football field. His acting, however, is above average, although Stenn called his performance "light" and "bland." The role of the sexual innocent, who is proficient on the athletic field but otherwise clumsy, is well-handled by Keith. His "puppy-dog" infatuation of Cynthia Day comes across well, too. It has been noted that Keith and Bow were romantically involved, albeit briefly. That is not too difficult to accept as the love scenes with the two are very believable. Keith seems to be truly smitten with his beautiful co-star.
However, it was Bow's other co-star in whom she was most interested -- Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso, who was renamed Gilbert Roland for this film. According to Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein in their Bow biography, The It Girl (Delacorte Press, 1976), "The swarthy, dark-eyed Roland was cast in 'The Plastic Age' in a secondary role. But he quickly became a star in Clara Bow's private life, and Clara admitted, 'He's the first man I ever cared about. . . He was captivated by her and went so far as to ask Clara's father for her hand in marriage. But marriage was not on carefree Clara's agenda. . . 'Nobody's gonna own me,' Clara would often say, and she meant it."
Roland's physical appearance certainly fits the role of the handsome, less than morally-upright college man well, however, this is early on in his acting career, and his performance is erratic. In the scenes where he is subdued and self-assured, Roland evokes the cockiness of a handsome young man fairly well, in spite of some traces of nervousness. However, in the more emotional scenes, he is less effective. This is evident most notably during the football game when he expresses anger at the coach for taking him out, his frustration when he misses a tackle, and the less than believable transformation from extreme hatred for Hugh to willingness to 'bury the hatchet.'
This leads to one of the weaknesses of the film. For no apparent reason, Carl decides to make up with Hugh and even goes so far as to help get Hugh and Cynthia back together -- all coming after nearly four years of anger and contempt. Some pivotal moment or event is needed to bring about this sudden change in Carl. This comes about after the big football game -- a game in which Carl was taken out after missing an important tackle and Hugh replaces him only to win the game with a final interception and touchdown. The exhilaration of the win just doesn't seem to qualify as a revelatory moment that would bring about such a change in Carl.
"The Plastic Age" was Preferred Pictures' biggest money-maker to date and a huge hit. It's certainly not Bow's best film ("Mantrap" (1926), "Dancing Mothers" (1926) and even "It" (1927) are better), but it is enjoyable escapist viewing. Screenland's reviewer criticized the portrayal of college youth in "The Plastic Age" as almost unbelievable and even refused to label Clara Bow's character as the heroine ("I shudder to think that we may ever have to consider this type of girl in such an exalted capacity," he said). Is the portrayal of college youth in "The Plastic Age" a caricature? Apparently the New York Times reviewer thought so, at least to some degree, but it doesn't matter. This story never pretends to be a literary classic. It just takes some tried and true elements, throws them together in a then-modern story of booze, flappers and football, and adds in the spiciness of Clara Bow for an enjoyable 73 minutes of entertainment -- just perfect for a movie out of the midst of the Jazz Age.
The copy reviewed is Image Entertainment's DVD version produced by David Shepard and his Film Preservation Associates, offered as a double-feature DVD with "The Show Off" (1926). It was mastered from a 16mm print and is excellent quality. The equally excellent music score by Eric Beheim uses original arrangements of authentic music of the period.
copyright 2002 by Tim Lussier, all rights reserved
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