Thursday, October 8, 2009

Violetta in a flapper dress

The Plastic Age (U.S., 1925) directed by Wesley Ruggles, 73 minutes

We are so hypocritical and puritanical about women and overt sexuality in most films that the bad girl usually must possess that clichéd and overused organ - a "heart of gold" - and redeem herself in the end. Thus we have Clara Bow, as the sexy college girl Cynthia Day, who almost ruins her lover Hugh's athletic career in The Plastic Age.

Flaming Youth (1923) which featured Colleen Moore was likely the first film to capitalize on this new expression of modern youth in the 21st c. The new woman was a hedonistic flapper who smoked, drank, swore, flouted authority, flirted with men and had sex. Women who cut their hair short, wore bold and vampish makeup, bound their breasts to appear more flat chested and less voluptuous (perhaps less fertile?), flouted their parent's and society's rules, were then considered a new and dangerous breed.

But it was Clara Bow who epitomized the 20s flapper; it is Bow that we continue to remember, particularly as the "It" girl. The Plastic Age was the film that started it all for her even though Clara had made at least two dozen films before this one.

The Plastic Age (or the malleable age) has a pedestrian plot but it illustrates, in a sense, the beginning of the cinematic image of the modern college boy and girl. Ergo, enter the frat boy ...

Hugh Carver, played by an awkwardly wooden Henry B. Walthall, is a promising football player entering college in his first year. He is introduced to what we would now recognize as the rituals of college: hazing, forcing freshmen to dress as women, bursting into the girls' dorm, necking, wild parties and drinking. This is everything that Hugh's parents feared as he entered college.

He meets Cynthia Day (Clara Bow), the campus beauty and the "hotsy totsy" that all the boys lust after. Cynthia quickly becomes the cause of Hugh's declining athletic prowess and the source of an unpleasant love triangle between Hugh, Cynthia and his roommate Carl (the dishy Latino heartthrob Gilbert Roland who anglicized his name and with whom Clara later had a relationship).

After a particularly troublesome fight between the two boys, Cynthia decides to release Hugh so that he might be saved from corruption - a sort of 21st c. Violetta Valery in a flapper dress who gives up her beloved for his own good despite her love for him. Without her, he excels again in sport and begins to win again becoming a football hero and reconciling with roomate Carl. Cynthia is shown crying silently, and alone, in the stands after the big win.

By the last day of school, Cynthia has become so straight-laced that she refuses to kiss a boy goodbye who is departing the college. Hugh gets so incensed that he socks the boy. The couple are then happily reunited after this.

But a puritanical strategy exists here in the plot: show the sexy excitement and energy of naughty collegial life but punish the bad girl until she reforms herself and demonstrates that she is worthy of the hero. Plastic indeed.

How to define Clara's considerable charms? Now I am not a Bow-ologist like my esteemed friend Chris Edwards who writes a fascianting blog on silent film called Silent Volume. But I think it's not just beauty or energy or style. In the 1920s she embodied a new lightheartedness towards men and sex, towards fun and enjoying life. Perhaps this is why her career suffered a decline during the depression. Perhaps this youthful joie de vivre appeared unseemly with so much tragedy and anxiety.

Her overtly sexual image would come to be her undoing later. I will reiterate an earlier thought from my review of the film "It":
As sex obsessed as we may appear in Western society, there’s a deeply puritanical streak as well, ready to destroy the woman (usually it’s a woman) who has gone too far in her adventurousness. Witness all the rumors swirling around Bow towards the end of her film career: newspaper reports of, variously, incest, orgies, lesbianism, bestiality, abuse, that ubiquitous entire football team she was rumored to have slept with. And this probably contributed to the host of mental health issues that obsessed her at that time and until the end of her life.

1 comment:

Chris Edwards said...

Thanks for the plug!

Speaking of woman-as-corrupter:

No shades of grey with this one. It's not a great film so much as a significant one, but I think you'd find it interesting.