Thursday, February 27, 2014

Our Modern Maidens (Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Rod La Rocque, 1929)

Good morning!

The weekend's in sight! I hope you all are enjoying the week-- my day brightened up with Warner Instant Archive's inclusion of Our Modern Maidens in their online streaming service. YAHOO! The sequel to Our Dancing Daughters, this movie is the second film in the Charleston-mad phase of nascent star Joan Crawford's career at MGM. Released in 1929, if you are looking for style above substance (and who's kidding, sometimes I am), this picture is a jazz baby romp through late twenties' youth culture worth checking out. 

First off, folks, meet Billie, freespirited daughter of a banking scion, rich and fancy free, as played by Joan Crawford. JC, incidentally, went by "Billie Cassin" before she settled on Joan Crawford as her professional name grace รก a fan magazine naming contest, and looks almost unrecognizable in her short bob but for those flashing, huge eyes:

In an opening I would have pegged as too over-the-top Fitzgeraldian in a modern movie doing the 20's, but is apparently completely authentic in this contemporaneous movie, Billie and her cohorts are drunkenly drag racing in these two open top Packards. Racing through the backstreets towards a late train that will take them back home from their weekend revels, the gaggle of sheiks and flappers stop as their favorite song comes on the radio for an impromptu dance session by the side of the road. Because this is the twenties', man, people are crazy! The movie features a musical soundtrack and integrated sound effects but no talking dialogue but for a radio announcement. The character dialogue is delivered in intertitles. It's still the strangest thing to watch movies from the cusp of the sound era, because while they're doing their darnedest to keep up with the trends, how ghostly is it to see these black and white actors pantomime silently as car horns go off in the background, car engines cough to life, and dance orchestra music floats through the air?

The plot follows Billie's plans to land a diplomatic post in Paris for her beau, future-real-life-husband Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, by exercising her feminine wiles on unsuspecting ambassadorial big wig Rod La Rocque. Starting a flirtation with one guy to get something for another guy seems like about the worst course of action you could take because, hey, how could people get hurt with a surefire scheme like that? La Rocque falls for La Crawford but hard, and JC gets her man his spot in the French embassy. However! In the meantime, as DFjr thinks he's been thrown over for his better established rival, Doug implicitly commits an indiscretion during a thunderstorm with Billie's naive blonde best friend, Kentucky (played by Anita Page and yes, that is her character's name). Doug wears this dark stain of shame on his virtue all the way to the altar with Billie. But how can he tell! It would ruin Kentucky's reputation! And Billie, for her own part, starts to have misgivings about throwing La Rocque over for baby faced Fairbanks! Angst! The narrative culminates in one of the most beautiful art deco weddings you will ever see on the screen, but the victory of getting hitched and going off to Paris rings hollow for the couple as they each fairly broil under the heat of their misgivings.

Plot? Paper thin, in all honesty, but you get the feeling throughout that the whole dramatic exercise is really just an excuse to bringing some of those John Held illustrations of flappers to life on the silver screen. Who's complaining? The sets! The costumes! The Jazz age! That's what we're really here for, and you get that in heapin' helpin's in Our Modern Maidens.

One interesting thematic element in this movie is its updated wardrobe contrasted with its outdated morality. A puritanical sense of virtue being inextricably tied to purity or virginity is the one solid theme going in the movie, and ain't that a headscratcher to a twenty-first century audience.While the 1929 hemlines are high and the bootleg liquor flows like water, the penalties for breaking social code by having premarital sex are as serious and real as they would have been in 1629. Spoiler: poor Joan takes the fall for Doug in the last reel after Kentucky spills the beans about their night of romance. By announcing publicly that she's the one who lost her head that night and can't possibly be a fitting wife for Doug, Joan has her out from the marriage but it costs her dearly. As she makes her grand exit among the shocked rice throwers alone down the cathedral steps, you might as well pin a scarlet "A" on her cocoon fur coat right there for the level of ostracism she receives from her formerly "forward" minded social equals. The poor girl moves to France to escape the tongue wagging/lashing going on surrounding this perceived ethical misstep!

Similarly, in Our Dancing Daughters, Joan loses her beau to a less pure-hearted, but more artful gold digger of a girl who casts aspersions on Joan's (not spotless, but intact) reputation. Joan has to go through all manner of martrydom for her "loose" behavior to get her boyfriend back by the end of the picture-- in spite of living by the social code, just people TALKING about whether or not you're fast is enough for you to lose traction with a possible mate. Some cultural revolution if everyone's dressing new but thinking archaic. And is there no room for a mistake in this culture? I guess not if people find out!

In one dramatic exchange, former good-guy La Rocque corners Joan as they're alone in his cottage on a rain soaked night, who rebuffs his relatively explicit advances. The scene is heavy with the image of a bed and the threat of being unchaperoned with a full grown male turning into an ugly scene. LaRocque tosses this line off after Joan wriggles from his passionate embrace:

She manages not to cave to the gorgeous RLR's advances, but heck of a lot of good that does her. He runs off, heartbroken, to his cabin in the Argentine, which frees her up to marry Doug, but does she even want to anymore? Oh, it's all so complicated. Later movies like Norma Shearer's The Divorcee and A Free Soul would tackle extramarital sex with less draconian penalties for those who didn't play by the rules, but it's funny, even in a frothy little concoction like these flapper movies, how heavy handed and SERIOUS moral transgressions are in the over-arcing sense of the story. ((end rant)) 

Now let's look at some superficial things (the good stuff!): sets, clothes, and more clothes. Like its predecessor, Our Modern Maidens is OVERSTUFFED with crazy, no-way, "People do not actually live like this" art sets. Look at these two scenes from I think Billie's house: 

Yep, totally attainable. That is, if Cecil Beaton's handy to rework your entire house like some deco dreamscape. I do love the idea of almost-Depression era Americans coming from their modest digs to see these cathedral ceilings castles of the modern age. Give 'em glitz! Give 'em glamour! Give 'em their ten cents worth!

One of the things the box synopsis and other reviews I've seen kept mentioning was Douglas Fairbank Jr's onscreen imitation of John Gilbert, John Barrymore, and his own famous father. They weren't half bad, but I wasn't blown away either. While John Gilbert was reduced to a lot of tango'ing, smoldering, and smiling (which he definitely does in equal parts) in DF's imitation of the actor, and Fairbanks's Fairbanks was helped a long a great deal by his filial resemblance to said swashbuckler, the really good one in my book was his Barrymore. Or, specifically, Barrymore as Mr. Hyde in his famous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Take a look at the side by's really pretty good!

Last but not least, these wedding ring ads ran in Photoplay in 1929 as a tie-in with Our Modern Maidens. And did you know, Joan and Doug themselves had married two months before the movie's August release date that year. They divorced four years later (Anita Page didn't have anything to do with that one, though). They look happier in these stills than they ever did in the movie!

Anyway, definitely worth a look if you're hankering for twenties' entertainment and flappers galore. I might suggest Our Dancing Daughters a little over this, but bookended, they're as much an interesting look at some of the social constraints of young moderns as they are their clothes and activities. Note: I am very biased because I would watch Joan Crawford in anything, but wasn't it exicting to see her here at the beginning of her career as a bonafide s-t-a-r?

So! What do you think? Have you seen this or any other old movies lately? What movies are out there that you've seen stills/pictures from but never gotten around to seeing? Are you a Joan fan? How do you react to her wildly different appearance in her twenties' movies versus other stages in her career? Let's talk!

I gotta get going, but I'll see you back here tomorrow for Photo Friday! Til then.


  1. That black and white cloche hat is crazy great!

    I recently watched "Of Human Bondage." I don't think I liked the story very much, but Bette Davis and Leslie Howard were good!

    1. Her wardrobe is KILLING. IT. In this movie. I want all of it! And "Our Dancing Daughters" might even have better clothes. It's a close call.

      Oh, I am a huge Bette Davis fan, I LOVE how nasty she is to poor Phillip in that movie. "Every time you kissed me, ya know what I use to do? I use to wipe my mouth, WIPE MY MOUTH, I DID! Yewww diiiisssgust me." All eyes and malice in that tiny little package. Great movie!

  2. Haven't seen this one yet but it's on my to-watch list! Love Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

    I find the 20s really fascinating because, as you said, it looks terribly modern but there were still huge social consequences for behavior we find commonplace today. Some of the Ladies' Home Journal articles on the dangers of jazz and drink are nauseatingly self-righteous.

    1. I'm so glad you agree about the morality issue! I'm not the MOST progressive person in the world but I was watching this like, "It's not the end of the world, people! SERIOUSLY?" Even considering the times, it was a little heavy handed.

      Have you read DFjr's book "Salad Days"? One of my FAVORITE. HOLLYWOOD MEMOIRS.

  3. Next you have to finish the trilogy with OUR BLUSHING BRIDES! Not as great as the first two, but still fun. Our flappers are now 1930s "woiking goils".

    Watched MORNING GLORY (1933) last night; it was just okay. I think part of it is that I'm impossibly irritated by Katharine Hepburn. :D

    1. ME TOO OMG. I both love and hate La Hepburn. She's one of those people who, in some movies, I'm with her 100%, love how strong she is, want her wardrobe, etc, etc. Then other movies, I feel like shouting at the screen, stamping my feet, leaving the room. "GET OVER YOURSELF, woman, oh my Goddddd...." I forgive her for "Morning Glory" over how much I love her over the top modern woman in "Woman of the Year". Isn't it funny in MG how much more grown up Douglas Fairbanks looks, even though it's only four years later? At nineteen, he looks about 14, whereas at twenty three, he looks like he might be able to vote at least?

      I need to see that and the Lon Chaney movie you recommended this weekend; will be back with movie lover shop talk to talk.

  4. I haven't seen this one-but now I really want to. I love Joan, especially early in her career. One of my favorite of her movies is Untamed, she is such a little spitfire as Bingo.

    I watched The Great Lie again the other night-sigh....Bette Davis and Mary Astor?? Heaven! Mary is star of the month on TCM for March-my DVR will be working overtime!



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