Tuesday, October 13, 2015

DVR Diary: WHY BE GOOD? (1929)

Colleen Moore was one of the biggest stars of 1920s Hollywood and the person who pretty much defined the look of the archetypal flapper -- you can take F. Scott Fitzgerald's word for it -- but show people with a non-specialized knowledge of film history a picture of her and they'll probably mistake her for Louise Brooks. Apart from their shared hairstyle, there was no comparing the two in 1929, but Brooks's films for G. W. Pabst have endured in the cinematic canon in a way nothing of Moore's has, and even Brooks's memoir gets more literary respect than Moore's. Life enhances art retrospectively to an extent, and Brooks led a more dramatic life than Moore, whose career didn't really survive the coming of sound but who died rich from wise investments. It's most likely also true that Pabst's Pandora's Box is better than anything Moore made. But does Moore deserve to be as completely eclipsed as she has been?

Last year Moore was given a chance to stick her foot in history's door when a restoration of William A. Seiter's Why Be Good? did the film-society circuit. The title was certainly inviting, suggesting that Moore marched mutely to the beat of the Pre-Code Parade -- mutely because Moore, in a rare move, had retreated to silents (albeit with Vitaphone music tracks) after making her talking, singing debut the year before. I haven't seen her first musicals -- in fact, they're lost films -- so I can't say whether she had good reason to retreat. But I can see how sound may have weighed her down; on the silent screen she has the perky exuberance of the era's clowns. I can also see that Moore was getting a little old, at 30, for her typecast flapper role; Flaming Youth had made her a superstar six years earlier. She tries to make up for that with manic energy. Moore helped popularize the Charleston and Why Be Good? makes much of her dancing, but to the modern eye it looks like she's having a manic conniption fit. She could be trying too hard at this point, but once she's off the dance floor she's much more palatable.

Moore also lives up to our expectations for flappers by asserting her character's rights against both her father and her boyfriend Winthrop (Neil Hamilton). When Dad questions the aptly-named Pert Kelly's nightlife, she reminds him that the year is 1929, not 1899, and that she's earning nearly as much for the household as a department-store salesgirl as Dad does, so she's entitled to make some decisions for herself. She has a more substantial complaint against the boyfriend. He's the new personnel director at her store, and the owner's son, whom she happened to meet cute at a jazzed-up boiler room turned speakeasy before their professional relations are established. He has to reprimand her the following morning for coming in late -- his waiting room is full of leggy employees who plan on coming in late more often if it means a trip to the handsome man's office -- but Pert has him to rights when she blames him for bringing her home late. On the other hand, he made it in on time, didn't he? Anyway, when Winthrop's dad notices his interest in Pert he decides she should be fired, even though her supervisor says she's one of their best salesgirls. Naturally Pert blames Winthrop, but he promises to get her job back and plies her with gifts. The mating dance begins in earnest, each careful to check the other's intentions. The climax comes when Pert confronts him over male double standards after a succession of mixed signals. Her message remains all too relevant today: men expect women to come on strong, loosen up, etc., but the next thing you know they condemn you for doing just what you think they want. Fortunately, her tirade convinces Winthrop that she's a good girl after all and a happy ending is assured.

In short, Why Be Good? is a romantic comedy and the genre doesn't age well. In fact, it dates quickly. Compared to the mechanical brilliance of slapstick comedy, romantic comedy seems trifling, and you have to pay attention to the intertitles. As a star vehicle, however, it's good testimony to Colleen Moore's star power. She's pretty and charismatic and has a physical grace peculiar to the silent era when she isn't going berserk on the dance floor. Moore will never be the icon for the modern age that Louise Brooks became, but Why Be Good? should resonate in our time as a snapshot of a young woman struggling with the odds stacked against her to live on her own terms. Not many films survive to testify to Moore's stardom -- only one reel of Flaming Youth is known to exist -- but this one at least gives us a clue to what all the fuss was about. It's a reminder that Colleen Moore was an icon of her time, at least, and a part of Hollywood history who deserves to be remembered.

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