Colleen Moore: The Perfect Flapper

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Today is the birthday of silent film actress Colleen Moore (Kathleen Morrison, 1899-1988). We bestow attention upon her today because she was so much associated with comedy. But we don’t include her in our Stars of Slapstick series because she made so many other kinds of films, and though she made many comedies (even for some of the principal comedy studios) they weren’t really of the slapstick type.

Moore was one of the first major stars to break into films with no stage experience. Crazy about movies, she got some experience as a crowd extra for Essanay Studios in Chicago, then got her powerful uncle Walter Howey, managing editor of the Chicago Examiner, to arrange a screen test with D.W. Griffith, which she passed. She began working for Triangle-Fine Arts in 1917. She made three films with the studio before they broke up, then went to work for the Selig-Polyscope Company. Her starring vehicles there A Hoosier Romance and Little Orphant Annie [sic], both 1918, were successes, but this studio folded as well. She then worked for the majors (Fox, Universal, Famous Players-Lasky) for several months, co-starring with the likes of Tom Mix and John Gilbert.

In 1920, she began working for the Christie Film Company, where she got her comedy seasoning in numerous Christie films, the most famous of these of which was probably So Long Letty (1920). At the same time she was still doing westerns and melodramas at other studios, such as Sky PIlot with King Vidor. (Moore had a life-long relationship with Vidor; you can read some of the juicy details in the book A Cast of Killers by Sydney D. Kirkpatrick. ) In 1921, she co-starred with vaudeville comedian Chic Sale in the comedy His Nibs. 

With Flaming Youth (1923), Painted People (1924) and The Perfect Flapper (1924) Moore established the popular twenties Hollywood image of the “flapper”, the wayward, slightly wild young woman,  and her popularity soared (although the naughtier Clara Bow and Louise Brooks would soon overtake her and eclipse her in that category). But far from being diminished, Moore’s star continued to rise. She starred in Edna Ferber’s So Big (1924), in the film adaptations of the popular Broadway hits Sally (1925), Irene (1926) and Oh Kay! (1928), and also starred in Ella Cinders (1926, with a memorable cameo by that year’s hottest comedy star Harry Langdon), as well as Twinkletoes (1926), Orchids and Ermine (1927), Naughty But Nice (1927), Lilac Time (1928) and many others. She was the biggest financial draw in Hollywood in 1927, but she quit two years later with the advent of sound.

She attempted to come back with a quartet of sound films (1933-1934), including Preston Sturges’s The Power and the Glory, John Howard Lawson’s Success at any Price, Anita Loos’s Social Register and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This sounds awfully promising, but apparently the box office did not match her former record. From there she went on to a long retirement, living on a carefully invested nest egg.

Now here’s the essence, the classic scene from Flaming Youth where she imagines making herself up as a flapper:

For more on silent comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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