Judge Mike Pinsky doesn't have the legs for the Ziegfeld Follies. But silent movie star Olive Thomas certainly did.
"Lovely Olive Thomas had the face of an angel—and the speech of a guttersnipe, though no fault of hers."—Lenore Coffee
In the prim and proper town of Orange Springs, Florida, good girls go to church socials and behave themselves. Genevieve King (Olive Thomas) is bored with her patrician life with her senator father, but fares no better at boarding school among the other hormonally-charged upper-class girls. Teenage "Ginger" wants to be sophisticated and taken seriously by the aristocratic older man (William P. Carleton, Jr.) who might be her ticket to the glamorous life. So she dumps her goofball boyfriend (Theodore Westman, Jr.) and heads to "wicked" New York City, where she gets involved with jewel thieves. Wacky hijinks ensue, as Ginger unknowingly helps the thieves smuggle their loot while trying to prove she is all grown up.
Leave it to Milestone. In the last few years, Dennis Doros has made the Milestone Collection the premiere studio for the preservation of early cinema. The Olive Thomas Collection proves that once again. Ostensibly, the centerpiece of this release is the 1920 film The Flapper. Written by legendary screenwriter Frances Marion (Dinner at Eight, The Champ), this social comedy about a teenage flirt who gets in over her head by trying to grow up too quickly is a showcase for both the production values of the up-and-coming Selznick Studios and the flirtatious charisma of Olive Thomas.
Who is Olive Thomas? This popular star of the Ziegfeld Follies, and screen rival to Mary Pickford, is nearly forgotten today. However, her story says much about the formative years of American mass entertainment. The Olive Thomas Collection highlights her career with a 57-minute documentary, Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart. Narrated in laconic fashion by Rosanna Arquette, the documentary traces Olive's life from blue-collar Pennsylvania at the dawn of the 20th century to New York (after a teenage divorce) and the wild life of the Jazz Age. Director Andi Hicks paints a solid portrait of Olive's life, occasionally digressing to explain the popular culture of the period (Florenz Ziegfeld, the workings of the silent film industry).
Olive herself is a bit of a cipher: We hear little about what she thought or felt about her life, in spite of learning much about her meteoric career. We do learn that Olive was wild and independent, refusing to live as a shy ingénue. She had affairs with Ziegfeld, with Mary Pickford's gawky brother (whom she secretly married), and with producer Myron Selznick. She brought vibrancy to her brief film career, but in spite of her reputation as a party girl, she was evidently both smart and temperamental. And on screen, she could play sentimental innocents, as well as jewel thieves, cross-dressing pickpockets, and slippery vamps.
Described as the "anti-Mary Pickford" (consider the title of her last film, Everybody's Sweetheart, as a deliberate knock at "America's Sweetheart"), Olive charged ahead with the playful sexual antics of The Flapper. But on a wild vacation to Paris with her husband, Olive mixed mercury bichloride (a syphilis treatment) with alcohol—and died rather unpleasantly. This was the first great Hollywood scandal, and the rumor mill went wild. Unfortunately, since the documentary does not give much insight into Olive's psyche, Hicks cannot offer much speculation regarding her curious death. Still, the documentary is an interesting portrait of how Hollywood took over from the New York stage as the center of American popular culture.
More can be gleaned from the bonus features, however. While some "reenactments" from Olive's life (performed by her great-grandniece, Nora Erhardt) are fairly silly and dispensable (director Andi Hicks clearly agrees; these are outtakes from the documentary), an audio reading of a 1931 newspaper interview with Olive's first husband, Bernard Krug Thomas, gives some penetrating clues as to her mercurial personality. He describes her as a sort of "Jekyll and Hyde," alternately dreamy and practical, accommodating and vain—and never satisfied. In a way, perhaps, The Flapper becomes almost a play on the entire life of Olive Thomas (albeit with some class differences): The idealistic girl runs off to New York City to make her fortune, and her sheer charm and good luck carries her far away.
But what about The Flapper itself as a film? With her barely-contained energy, Olive could carry this film by herself. But The Flapper is pretty good even on its own merits. Its blithe tone is well-suited to Olive's accessible screen persona (think of a silent-era Julia Roberts). A few odd touches make it clear that the film has a quirky satirical edge. The boarding school is run by a "Miss Paddles," for instance, and the intertitles show a distinctly sarcastic bent ("Great gobs of adventure," one reads). This reflects the touch of screenwriter Frances Marion, who is clearly tweaking the gender politics of the wealthy class. And director Alan Crosland (The Jazz Singer) handles the material with a light touch.
The film is notorious for being the first screen appearance of the "flapper" character that would become so indelibly associated with the 1920s. When I think of flappers, I picture androgynous gamines in shapeless dresses and waggling beads sipping illegal hooch while the Charleston plays in the background. None of this applies to Olive Thomas, the original flapper. Ginger's brief appearance in flapper garb (only one scene, actually) is really is really a send-up of the naïve and silly lifestyle of Jazz Age revelers.
Some people think the ghost of Olive Thomas still haunts the old home of the Ziegfeld Follies, the New Amsterdam Theatre (presumably in between shows of The Lion King). Ultimately, I am not sure Olive Thomas is as significant a figure in early Hollywood as, say, Anna May Wong, the subject of Milestone's indispensable Piccadilly (although The Flapper is arguably a more entertaining film overall). Nonetheless, she is a charming and talented actress whose legacy deserves to be rediscovered. She is a precursor to such later spunky comedic actresses as Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock.
Both The Flapper and the admirable effort put forth by the makers of the documentary on this DVD release go a long way toward bringing the talented and playful Olive Thomas back into the public spotlight. And for that alone, this DVD is worth a look. Maybe everybody's sweetheart will be your sweetheart too.
The life and career of Olive Thomas are vindicated by the ample evidence brought before this court. Case dismissed.
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