In the 1920s, the term “flapper” referred to a new breed of young women who wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, listened to jazz, and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered “decent” behavior. Flappers were seen as brash. They wore excessive makeup, drank hard liquor, treated sex in a casual manner, smoked cigarettes and drove cars.
The cinematic image of the flapper was set in 1923 with the success of a film called Flaming Youth. This film practically defined the Roaring Twenties and shot Colleen Moore to superstardom.
The plot was pretty basic: a woman begins living a frivolous lifestyle because her husband neglects her. Seeing the error of her ways, she tries to instill old-fashioned values in her youngest daughter Patricia (Colleen Moore), but heart trouble leads to an early death for the mother. Patricia grows up to be a flapper.
Patricia has a series of adventures, including an open affair with her mother’s secret boyfriend (Milton Sills). But Patricia is hesitant to marry because of all the unhappy matches around her. She becomes involved with a musician who traps her on a yacht (she is forced to jump into the sea). She becomes gravely ill and recovers to marry her mother’s former lover.
Despite the “traditional” ending, Flaming Youth (novel and film) caused a sensation with its wild new character, one that reigned throughout the 20s and into early talkies. The flapper practically replaced the “vamp” as the screen’s predominant female sex symbol. Moore, who had been in films since the mid-teens in standard “leading lady” roles, was reborn with Flaming Youth. She cut her hair into her trademark “Prince Valiant” bob, wore short skirts and long strings of beads. Talk about a makeover! Although Moore kept the trademark hair-do, she moved on to a variety of roles for the rest of her career, leaving the next round of silent flappers to the likes of Louise Brooks, Joan Crawford, Clara Bow, Marion Davies, and Alice White.
The flapper was important in that it created a new screen persona. Actresses of the day got away from playing virginal heroines and spunky little girls. By the time Moore had catapulted to stardom in 1923, it was already unthinkable that the flapper was the kind of part Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish could play. And with one movie, their kind of parts became terribly quaint in a 19th century way. The flapper was a new kind of woman, one the post-war generation was ready for.
The ads for Flaming Youth were interesting because they blatantly advertised the sexual content with “How far can a girl go? She smoked cigarettes. She drank. She went to petting parties.”
The scene shown in the above poster is filled with languid young people lounging together on floor cushions. This is a far cry from the Victorian world of a generation before. Another poster below shows Moore with bare shoulders in a cape-like outfit, which she’s holding open in front.
In her autobiography, Silent Star, published in 1968, Moore said that Flaming Youth was held over in most American cities and was a huge hit overseas as well. With her new superstar status, First National gave Moore a new contract for four films a year, making $50,000 per picture. In 1924 Moore returned as The Perfect Flapper, marking her last appearance in this sort of role. Moore would alternate between dramatic films like So Big and Lilac Time and comedies like Ella Cinders for the rest of her career.
The novel by Warner Fabian (real name: Samuel Hopkins Adams) was a sensational best seller that rivaled the popularity of Edith Hull’s racy novel, The Sheik. Both books broke 19th century conventions to create new types of male and female protagonists. But the flapper proved to be the more durable type; one still recognized 80 years later. Fabian returned to the flapper theme in The Wild Party, the talkie debut for Clara Bow.
After a decade of headlines like the one below from a 1922 New York Times, the Great Depression temporarily silenced the flapper. Audiences turned to other types of heroines that better fit the mood of the country. But the resilient flapper came back in the 60s in the guise of, of all people, Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie, which later became a hit Broadway musical. As the Flaming Youth poster asked: how far can a girl go?
One of the biggest and most influential films of the 1920s, Flaming Youth ranks among the most sought after “lost” films of the silent era. Only one reel of the film is known to exist (Library of Congress) even though it has been reported that Moore donated a copy of the film to a museum in the 1960s to coincide with the publication of Silent Star. That copy has seemingly disappeared.