Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929)

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)   Our Modern Maidens (1929)
Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929)

I thought it would be fun to screen these two late Silent films together.  Even though they are not a prequel or sequel, they both have similar titles and both starred Joan Crawford and Anita Page.  Toronto Film Society had screened these in the days it was programming its Silent Series and because it’s been a long time since I last saw them, I don’t have much to say about either of them except that they are beautifully crafted MGM films.  Happily, I found a lot of reviews and essays written about all aspects of these films that I thought you would find of interest.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Directed by Harry Beaumont.  Story and Scenario by Josephine Lovett.  Titles by Marian Ainslee and Ruth Cummings.  Cinematography by George Barnes .  Set Decoration by Cedric Gibbons.  Film editing by William Hamilton and Margaret Booth.  Music by William Axt.  Costume and Wardrobe by David Cox.  Released:  September 1, 1928.  85 minutes.

Joan Crawford……………………………………………………. Diana Medford
Johnny Mack Brown…………………………………………………. Ben Blaine
Nils Asther………………………………………………………………… Norman
Dorothy Sebastian………………………………………………………. Beatrice
Anita Page…………………………………………………………………….. Ann
Kathlyn Williams…………………………………………………… Ann’s Mother
Edward J. Nugent………………………………………………………… Freddie
Dorothy Cumming……………………………………………….. Diana’s Mother
Huntley Gordon…………………………………………………… Diana’s Father
Evelyn Hall …………………………………………………….. Freddie’s Mother
Sam De Grasse………………………………………………… Freddie’s Father

It’s ironical that some of the best films about the 20’s and the so-called “lost generation” were actually made in the early 30’s. Perhaps Hollywood had acquired more Our Dancing Daughters (1928)perspective by then, just as the best war films were those made with the longest interval between them and the war in question. (For example, Paths of Glory of the 50’s is almost certainly the best film about World War One). But at least the “roaring 20’s” films actually made contemporaneously had the values of superficial authenticity – the costumes, the dances, the hair-dos, the hip-flasks and rolled-stockings and the catch-phrases, all of these were recorded on film to become a somewhat one-sided documentary of their times. Our Dancing Daughters is hardly an unvarnished picture of those times – but it’s an interesting, Hollywood-oriented point of view. Everybody lives in those uncomfortable looking, expressionistic “moderne” mansions that Cedric Gibbons loved to design for MGM; nobody has to worry about making a living, and indeed the source of income is never mentioned. Life is a constant whirl of yacht trips and cocktail parties, and a broken heart is casually salved by a little trip around the world. Yet morality is broken down into very definite blacks and whites, though promiscuity seems to be a lesser sin for a young lady than smoking in public. Still, we can learn almost as much about a period from glossy distortions such as this as from pure documentary. The cast is an exceptionally good one, though even Joan Crawford’s considerable thunder is stolen by Anita Page, an actress of real personality and talent who disappeared all too quickly in the sound era, probably because she wasn’t a big enough name to meet the competition of the very similar Jean Harlow. Director Harry Beaumont, who started out as an actor with Edison, must surely hold some kind of record for prolific mediocrity. He was constantly busy during the silent period, his lack-lustre talented salvaged by periodic prestige films and big name stars: Barrymore’s Beau Brummel, tonight’s film, and The Broadway Melody of 1929. His talkie career dwindled slowly but definitely, coming to a halt in the mid-30’s with “B” pictures. What other director would dream of doing what Beaumont does here, shooting a superimposed flashback through a check-designed tie or scarf, so that one cannot see what is going on?

William K. Everson, October 22, 1971

The lesson (of Crawford able to steer critics’ attention away from Gilbert in Four Walls) was not lost on the powers at the studio, and the opportunity she had awaited for three Our Dancing Daughters (1928)years was finally in view.  A script was prepared by Josephine Lovett tailored expressly to suit Crawford’s personality, really for the first time in her career.  The outcome of this Our Dancing Daughters, which opened at the Capitol in New York in October, 1928, broke every existing record at the theatre, and proceeded to duplicate the feat throughout the country. The plot was hardly innovative, even then–it was really just Sally, Irene and Mary among the Four Hundred.  What made the film remarkable was its accuracy in summing up and then glamorizing the attitudes of an era, achieving the sort of impact The Graduate had four decades later.  The flappers and sheiks of the twenties, weaned on Fitzgerald and John Held, fervently believed in living freely and fully before the responsibilities of adulthood descended, and Our Dancing Daughters flaunted the banner of hedonism as if it were a standard of battle.  Premarital sex, of course, remained taboo but all other excesses were not only tolerated but encouraged.

Even the most banal of the film’s plot devices seem fresh when touched by Crawford’s irresistible vivacity.  She is first seen dancing madly before a three-way mirror, and for the next eight reels she never stands still for a minute.  Her credo is simple: as she explains to her swain during their passionate tryst on the beach, “I want to hold out my hands and catch [life]–like the sunlight.”  Crawford’s renowned Charleston is performed in a half slip and fringed blouse; a skirt would have been too confining.  She is not really particularly graceful or agile, but she has the abandoned intensity of a pent-up animal who has tasted freedom for the first time.  Diana is a triumph of personality over technique, for at this stage Crawford’s skills have yet to be tempered by restraint. Her mannerisms at times tend to the overly antic, as her shoulders gyrate, head shakes, and eyes roll to the ever-present syncopation of her spirit.  However, her presence is open and invigorating to a degree unmatched by any of the other star flappers of the period  She gives the impression of seeming totally free of emotional artifice–her joy looks real rather than conjured for the camera.

The impact of Our Dancing Daughters on its audiences was equalled only by Diana’s influence over Crawford’s subsequent characterizations.  For the next decade, descendants of this hedonistic but principled creature surfaced again and again, although languid thirties chic came to  replace her pre-Depression exuberance.  Until Mildred Pierce presented her with a fresh archetype, for much of her following she was to remain the Dancing Daughter, no matter how hard she tried to vary the pattern.

Our Dancing Daughters ‘ extraordinary popularity led to a doubling of Crawford’s salary to five hundred dollars a week, but as yet failed to guarantee her the kind of parts that sustain a star career.

Joan Crawford by Stephen Harvey (1974)

About the same time as she met Fairbanks, Crawford read a serial story in one of the Hearst newspapers.  It was called The Dancing Girl, and was intended to be turned into a film for William Randolph Hearst’s movie company, Cosmopolitan, which released its productions through MGM.  Testing stories for their public appeal in this way, before spending money in turning them into a scenario, was one of the few bonuses which MGM derived from its links with Hearst, whose film company w as simply one way of promoting the career of his mistress Marion Davies, vainly as it usually turned out.  Emboldened by  having a film role tailored for her in Four Walls, Crawford purloined the new script.  Immediately she read it, she begged producer Hunt Stromberg for a part in it.  MGM had sensed something different about the story, but was not quite sure what.  It was a studio which put more reliance than most on the title given a film.  The technique was to poll several executives until a consensus was reached.  Several dozen titles might be run through and discarded.  Sometimes the indecisiveness revealed doubts about where audience tastes might lie in times when trends were changing, sometimes it suggested corporate uncertainty about casting, content or style.  ‘Personally like title These Modern Girls for Dancing Girl,’ cabled one MGM executive.  ‘Also have suggestion Dancing Daughters.  We like either of these much better than Dancing Girl.’  On 7 March 1928, when shooting had got underway, another title was registered: These Naughty Times.  This, too, fell by the wayside, until, on 16 April 1928, Howard Strickling cabled J. Robert Rubin in New York: ‘Final title of The Dancing Girl is – Our Dancing Daughters.’  This time, there was no further change; and by then, the girl who herself had undergone some fateful name-changes was well into playing the role that made Joan Crawford a star.

The same vitality that shaped Joan Crawford’s physical restlessness and fuelled her career transfuses itself into ‘Dangerous’ Diana Merick, the flapper girl of Our Dancing Our Dancing Daughters (1928)Daughters (1 September 1928).  Rhythm and role are now one.  The opening shot, an emblematic figurine celebrating the madcap spirit of the Jazz Age, dissolves into Crawford’s lower limbs, so impatient to take their owner to an all-night party at the yacht club that they are already doing a tap-dance as she steps into her undies.  ‘Mother, how vicious!’ she cries spotting the orchid on her parent’s gown–for flappers like Diana have modern parents, too.  Then roguishly advising her father not to stay out late, she rushes off on her own wild fling, first making provision for the distance she means to travel with a sip out of a succession of champagne glasses offered by her dancing partners and a toast ‘to myself.  I have to live with myself until I die.  So may I always like myself!’

The impression is of spoilt, exuberance, youthful audaciousness, heedless abandon.  Finding herself improbably encumbered by a party gown that can scarcely have weighed an ounce in the first place, she whips it off and finishes Charlestoning in her slip.  ‘You want to take all of life, don’t you?’ asks the wealthy playboy she is dating and confidently expect to marry.  Comes the pat reply (in silent-era titles): ‘Yes–all!  I want to hold out my hands and catch at it.’

Our Dancing Daughters was a declaration, a manifesto.  It didn’t just speak to the younger generation of film-goers: it spoke for them.  If they couldn’t aspire to Diana’s wild lifestyle, they could live the vicarious thrills of it through the film’s promotion of youth, pace and modernity.  The fans who disregarded fire regulations and stood five deep behind the last row of seats at the film’s first performance after the shops had closed that opening Monday night at the Capitol theatre, New York, were Joan’s generation.  They were ready and able in all except what their purses held to go along with her lack of inhibitions about all the really important things life held–boy-friends, party-going, having a good time generally and waking up not to a hangover but a happy ending.

Yet the appeal is not quite so simplistic as this suggests: nor is Crawford’s conquest simply a matter of story-rigging.  The film divides the interest, if not film-goers’ Our Dancing Daughters (1928)sympathy, between three well-balanced characters.  Crawford herself is the good-bad girl, whose snappy, syncopated movements are perfect for the short cuts she takes to the pleasures of the time, but whose wildness is ultimately defined as simply being a good sport.  Headstrong she may be, but she is true to herself and incapable of being false to any other.  Then there is Anita Page, another ‘daughter’ of the times, only devious rather than dance-mad.  Her baby face is the badge of the flapper-age vamp.  Acting innocent and virginal, egged on by her mother out of a need to replenish the family purse, she entices Joan’s millionaire beau into her own arms. (‘Does this signify marriage?’  Her mother slips the question in like a knife-thrower after the pair return from an innocent moonlight walk.)  It forces Joan into a redemptive bit of moral stock-taking–and gives disadvantaged film-goers the pleasure of enjoying wealth in the short term while immediately approving of virtue as a long-term investment.  The lesson is rubbed in–scrubbed in, rather–when Anita, who has gone to the bad, falls fatally down the stairs at the private club after standing at the top sneering drunkenly at the charwomen washing them.  The story’s third ‘daughter’, Dorothy Sebastian, is a victim, too, but of male chauvinism: her husband cannot cope with the revelation that she has played around before marriage.  the moral: never tell all.

‘None of us was starred in the picture,’ Crawford recalled, ‘but theatre owners, sensing the audience response, “starred” me.  My name went up on their marquees.’  Crawford’s is indeed the name–and Our Dancing Daughters the movie–most often cited by impressionable teenage children surveyed in the years 1919-33 by the Payne Fund established to find out the effect that movies had on adolescents. One girl, a delinquent, admitted that when she went to parties after seeing the film, ‘of course I mingled the drinks as [Diana] had done.  I also sang the theme song of Our Dancing Daughters.’  But wanton hedonism was not the lesson that most children absorbed.  Far from it.  ‘No matter what happened,’ said one girl in her teens, ‘[Diana Merick] played fair, even when she lost her man…  The older generation [think] that when a modern young miss wants her man back, she’d even be a cut-throat; but Joan Crawford showed that even in a crisis like this she was sport enough to play fair.  And “play fair” is really t he motto of the better class of young Americans.’

Fifty years later, the grand-children of ‘our dancing daughters’ showed the same sort of generational response to John Travolta, thrusting him into what the inflation of later times called ‘superstardom’.  In a simpler age, when movie-going and not, discoing was the mass stimulus, teenagers’ identification with a star ho appeared to be the character she played was not confined to Saturday night fever.

Crawford’s stock soared in ways that MGM couldn’t ignore, even if it had wanted to: in the box-office grosses of all the Loew’s theatres, and in the suddenly increased volume Our Dancing Daughters (1928)of fan mail arriving at the studio.  Some of it came addressed to ‘Diana’, but the mail room needed no other clue to its destination.  People wrote to Crawford as if they knew her.  At a stroke, she had found ‘that incredible thing, a public…  ‘From this moment on, I had a sense of audience, warm living people who would care for me in direct proportion to the energy and talent I could give, a public to whom I owed a loyalty and from whom I’ve always received loyalty.’  She answered every letter personally, or so she claimed.  Perhaps this was true of the first couple of tons of mail-bags, until she saw the rising cost of loyalty in time and postage.  An MGM internal memo suggests that the machine had soon to take over.  ‘This is your authority’, M.E. Greenwood wrote to a Miss Farrell, re. ‘Joan Crawford Fan Mail’, to ‘take charge of [this] mail until further notice.  I would suggest we reply to all the intelligent letters and keep a record of the cost.’  On 18 February 1929, Crawford’s stardom, already accorded her by her fans like a commission on the field of battle, received its official confirmation at HQ.  ‘Is Joan Crawford to be considered a star?’ W.K. Craig, head of accounts, asked Floyd Hendrickson, studio attorney, and added with a bluntness indicating how such intangibles as ‘stardom’ had a practical application to studio management: ‘And is all her accumulated salary to be charged to the pictures in which she works?’  Back came an unwavering ‘Yes.’  Crawford’s new sense of identity was also formally registered. ‘Joan Crawford’, wrote Craig, ‘is asking that we issue salary checks from now on to “Joan Crawford”, instead of Lucille LeSueur.  Will you find out from the attorneys if this is okay.’  Unsurprisingly, it was–though, strangely enough, some memos, even those from Mayer himself, continue to be addressed to ‘Miss LeSueur’ until well into 1931.

Her contract option had been picked up at $1,000 a week on 28 November 1928.  Following Our Dancing Daughters, it was raised by a further $500 and there was to be no ‘layoff’ period–the stretch of time that an artist was officially on holiday without pay.  In other words, she was now considered so valuable a property that she was to be given a paid vacation.

Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Star by Alexander Walker
Authorized by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1983)

In 1928, when her determination and guts made her a star in Our Dancing Daughters, Joan answered each fan letter personally, stamped the envelopes, and took them to the post office herself.  “This was the turning point in my life,” she said.  “The fact that anybody would write me a letter was a thrill.  They deserved to be acknowledged.  They believed in me.”

Crawford’s Men by Jane Ellen Wayne (1988)

Bona fide stardom came in 1928 when Joan Crawford played a dance-mad flapper whose passion for life in the fast lane mirrored her own off-screen persona.  Our Our Dancing Daughters (1928)Dancing Daughters was to the twenties what Saturday Night Fever was to the seventies: it completely captured the feeling of the era.  Crawford sported a windblown bob, wore costumes that showed off her great legs, and performed a highly evocative rendition of the Charleston on a table.  At last, moviegoers saw her earthy, exuberant sex appeal.  Overnight she became a symbol of the Jazz Age; the era’s premier chronicler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, proclaimed her “the best example of the dramatic flapper.”

Mayer raised her salary to $500 a week.  Fan mail poured in; she was the heartthrob of young men and the idol of millions of girls.  In her next few films, MGM gave the public the Crawford image they wanted: a party girl.  Off-screen, the star was entering the next stage of her metamorphosis.

By now Crawford was engaged to the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., whose father and step-mother, Mary Pickford, were the reigning king and queen of Hollywood.  Junior was the town’s great catch.  Artistic, well-read, and beautifully mannered, he was her Prince Charming.  As for Fairbanks, he loved Crawford for who she was: a chorus girl, “vital, energetic, very pretty and quite unlike anyone I had known before.”

The press gobbled up the new romance between the humble girl from Kansas City and the scion of movie royalty.  “She and I had come a good way toward creating our own images of each other,” Fairbanks wrote in his memoirs, “some of it no doubt influenced by what the columnists and fan magazine hacks wrote about us.”  On June 3, 1929, days after they finished filing Our Modern Maidens, they were married.

The Power of Glamour by Annette Tapert (1998)

When MGM released Our Dancing Daughters–the landmark tribute to flappers and jazz babies–in mid-1928, one star stood out from the crowd.  It wasn’t Joan Crawford who Our Dancing Daughters (1928)received the critical acclaim and word of mouth; it was lovely blonde Anita Page, for her portrayal of the self-destructive, amoral Anne.  Yet within a few years, Crawford was Queen of the Lot, and Page was being loaned out for trash like Jungle Bride.  Today, though, Anita Page has no regrets, no bitterness.  She’s bright, funny, and more than happy to talk about her career.

Anita Page’s biggest break was Our Dancing Daughters.  Director Harry Beaumont was “scared to death to take me.  He went to L.B. Mayer and said, ‘I can’t take this girl, I need a consummate actress.  The whole story will rise and fall on her performance.'”  Beaumont didn’t know that Anita had recently thrown a diva fit in Mayer’s office over a publicity still she considered scandalous: “I was ordering Mayer around like an office boy,” she recalls in amazement.  When Beaumont voiced doubts, Mayer smiled, “She’s a Bernhardt.”  Her role in Our Dancing Daughters was “terribly naughty,” Anita laughs, “but as long as I died, that was all right.  But Joan Crawford was getting scared to death.  She came up to me just before I was going to do the heavy work [a dramatic scene with Johnny Mack Brown] and said, ‘Anita, you’d better be careful, you have to kick Johnny Mack Brown and fight him–don’t be too harsh.’  Hoping I’d hold back!  Johnny was a football player, as if he couldn’t protect himself!  I told him, ‘Joan is worried I was going to hurt you,’ and he told me, ‘Give it everything you’ve got.’  So her little ploy didn’t work.”

Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden (2001)

THE FLAPPER FILM, Comedy, Dance, and Jazz Age, Kinaesthetics by Lori Landay

At the beginning of Our Dancing Daughters (1928), a golden art deco statue of a woman frozen mid-dance dissolves into a pair of shoes in front of a three-way mirror.  Our Dancing Daughters (1928)The next dissolve adds the woman’s feet and legs, which suddenly begin to dance frenetically.  “Dangerous” Diana, as our flapper heroine will call herself later in the film, is dressing before her mirror, dancing into her modern “step-in” underwear before stepping out for the evening.  Although never static for long, the young Joan Crawford pauses to admire her reflection confidently before swooping out of her spacious boudoir, part of a kinetic–and kinaesthetic–deco design.

An analysis of this opening scene could illustrate how female subjectivity as created out of the discourses of the culture industries is inextricably intertwined with self-commodification and self-objectification, with the split in sense of self between, to use John Berger’s terms, surveyor and surveyed.  Diana is an incarnation of the nude deco figurine, self-absorbed in her dancing.  As she dresses, she is both the surveyor and surveyed of her mirror image, a trope that has long associated women with vanity and narcissism.  The female film spectator is encouraged to identify with Diana through subjective point of view, to put herself in front of the commodifying mirror of modern femininity, as if in illustration of Mary Ann Doane’s explanation of the “female spectator-consumer”: “The cinematic image for the woman is both shop window and mirror, the one simply as means of access to the other.  The mirror/window, then, takes on the aspect of a trap whereby [the woman spectator-consumer’s] subjectivity becomes synonymous with her objectification.”

Such links between cinema, mass consumer culture, and constructions of gender have been well established by a range of scholars.  In addition, there is empirical evidence, such as the comments offered by respondents to the Payne Fund Study performed by sociologist Herbert Blumer, published as Movies and Conduct (1933).  In the words of one respondent (female, sixteen, white high-school junior): “I remember after having seen Our Dancing Daughters with Joan Crawford, I wanted a dress exactly like one she had worn in a certain scene.  It was a very ‘flapper’ type dress, and I don’t usually go in for that sort of thing.”  Or as another respondent, a nineteen-year-old female Jewish college sophomore insightfully explained, “Certainly the movies have made me sharply aware of the fact that men place a high premium on the physical aspect of woman, that primarily a man’s attention is drawn to a woman because of her beauty; that a large degree of the proverbial ‘IT’ may be attained by pretty clothes, risqué clothes.”

To be sure, Joan Crawford’s Diana, so riveted on the narcissistic pleasures of her expensively stylish form, might seem to be an icon of the modern femininity that required makeup and fashion for its performance in everyday life–and elsewhere I have documented that process in Jazz Age discourses of economics and erotics.  Clearly, commodification was (and remains) a central function of the cultural work of movie culture, but an interpretation that privileges commodification, eve  the active process of self-commodification that Doane advances, would not fully account for the kinetic and comic aspects of the flapper film.  A more thorough look at the flapper film and the wider flapper phenomenon indicates that there is more going on in the complex relations of looking in and at the flapper films than Doane’s argument would suggest.  Arguing against Doane’s thesis that the power of consumerism coerces women into becoming passive subjects engaged only in narcissistic or masochistic processes of self-commodification, Gaylyn Studlar makes a crucial point: “women did not go to the movies or read fan magazines merely to “possess” the luxurious furnishings or the clothes or the stars that might be displayed.  They went for an experience, one whose terms of fascination could be altered by the extra-textual process.  As a consequence, it is unlikely that the complex activity of the female spectator or the fan magazine reader of the 1920s can be fully explained by a model of consumerism, such as advanced by Doane, that depends on a binarism in which women can only either possess or comprehend.  Following Studlar, I would argue that the comedy in the flapper film, the kinaesthetic power of the flapper performance, and how the female spectator experienced it are undoubtedly key factors in commodification but they also exceed the processes of commodification.  In other words, there is a ludic embodiment of femininity that transcends the limited subjectivity of self-commodification, and encourages the flapper spectator to imagine and emulate a playful subjectivity that is not simply enslaved to commodity culture.  The modern embodied subjectivity expressed by and experienced in the lived body of both flapper actresses and flapper spectators twirled, sauntered, clowned, slid, flew, and of course danced its way into a new aesthetic–or, to use Hillel Schwartz’s evocative term, a new kinaesthetic.

By considering comedy, the relations of looking in and at the film, flapper dance peformance, and the construction of modern feminity, this essay seeks to open a particular vein of research in early-twentieth-century media studies to foreground how an inquiry into the flapper film can contribure to our understanding of the complexities of the relationships between the female spectator and the flapper star, and of women’s experience of modern life.  The opening scene of Our Dancing Daughters becomes the illustration of this idea: instead of the static, objectified femininity of the deco figurine, Diana appears, piece by dancing piece, delighting in the intertwined pleasures of donning her stylish clothes, performing her giddy movements, and looking at the combined impact of the two in her mirror.  Although the opening image of the deco figurine is one metaphor for a dominant strain of Jazz Age femininity–the female form frozen in a moment of embodied narcissism–the dancing flapper who replaces her is another, a modern new woman who exceeds the limitation of the frame of objectification.  A comic incarnation of the modern girl, she embodies and articulates teh kinetic powers and pleasures–a new kinaesthetic–of the modern body in motion that develops in the early decades of the twentieth century.

A Feminist Read in Early Cinema edited by Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (2002)


Motion Picture Classic noted in 1924: “No topic of the day…is so eagerly pursued as that of the Modern Girl: what she is doing and why she is doing it; and what she is Our Dancing Daughters (1928)thinking, if at all; and why she is as she is.  Despite public ambivalence if not outright condemnation of modern modes of young womanhood, in the 1920s, the flapper became the most recognizable public image of the modern girl.  In various incarnations she was featured s the heroine of numerous films such as The Adventurous Sex (1925), Bare Knees (1928), The Exalted Flapper (1927), Flapper Wives (1924), It (1927), Modern Daughters (1927), Nice People (1922), Our Dancing Daughters (1928), The Painted Flapper (1924), and Wild,  Wild Susan (1925), among others.  Box-office trends suggested that audiences reveled in the excitement of modern women on-screen and in the eroticized stars who played them.  These films traded on the appeal of adventurous, energetic, and erotically charged modern femininity, even if they most often pulled in the reins on youth in the final reel to reaffirm traditional sexual values attached to marriage.  Even if they remained virgins in the final film reel, modern women with sex appeal were in, good girls aligned with old-fashioned innocence were out.

In the midst of a national debate over changing sexual and social expectations for women, Hollywood was accused of encouraging a new, dangerous model of female sexuality.  In “What the Films Are Doing to Young America,” sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross represented a vocal segment of public opinion when he wrote that the movies were making young women (as well as young men)more “sex-wise, sex-excited, and sex-absorbed than…any generation of which we have knowledge.”  Sociologist Herbert Blumer interviewed young people and confirmed the widespread belief that the imitation of young female stars was having a deleterious effect on the behavior of America’s young women.  One young woman told Blumer: “I have learned from the movies [and Clara Bow] how to be a flirt, and I have found out that at parties and elsewhere the coquette is the one who enjoys herself the most.”

In the late 1920s, Crawford emerged as another screen exemplar of the flirt as well as a rising star that embodied the vivacious moder girl in films like Our Dancing Daughters (1928), Our Modern Maidens (1929), Our Blushing Brides (1930), and Dance, Fools, Dance (1931).  In “Friendly Advice from Carolyn Van Wyck on Girls`Problems,” Diana, Crawford`s character in Our Dancing Daughters, was used as an example of why the ìnnocent, sweet girl” who may be “the life of the party” needed to appear less mordern in some ways, for “the girl who has the reputation of being a flirt,” Van Wyck advised her inquring readers, “sometimes has a hard time convincing a man that she really love him.”  Crawford’s heroines suggested new sexual directness, but also the restlessness and uncertainty attached to the image of the “modern maiden.”  As one newspaper article noted, “Slowly, sophistication came in, as the mode and the mood of films changed.  Before you realized it, Joan was the modern young woman at her best on the screen.”

Thus, on-screen, Crawford’s heroines of the 1920s often were marked as highly erotic eye candy, but for all their sexualized display (and behaviour) her heroines remained “virtuous.”  The crawford vehicle Our Blushing Brides foregrounded this contradictory Hollywood assertion of modern femininity.  A review in Photoplay noted of Crawford’s role in this second sequel to Our Dancing Daughters: “Joan is the fashion model that holds out for the wedding ring.  She gives a beautiful performance as the girl who sticks to the straight and narrow.  You must see her in those lace step-ins!”  Lokking back on films like this, Harry Evans remarked in Life magazine in 1931 that “Joan first stepped into screen prominence by stepping out of her clothes…MGMs idea of a jazz mad gal being one who slinks about in fancy underwear and pretends it’s all in fun.”

In the 1920s, Crawford’s life was thought to parallel her on-screen identity as a key representative of “flaming youth” and modern young femininity, but in that life, despite the publicity machine of MGM, there was no definitive last reel confirmation of her morality.  As a rising star, she was publicized across newspaper articles, MGM promotion, and fan magazine articles, which all provided a discursive construction of her as a goodtime girl whose behaviour earned her nicknames like “Hey-Hey Girl” and the “Whoopee Girl.”  During this period, Crawford was, in the words of Adela Rogers St. Johns, “the harum-scarum favorite of the night spots.”  Crawford’s publicity photographs were everywhere in the late 1920s, often featuring her in provocatively “come hither” poses and skimpy dance constumes, lingerie, or bathing suits.  However, even at this point, there is often the suggestion, as in Our Dancing Daughters, that Crawford’s public frivolity is a mask.  A fan magazine article of 1927 alludes to a childhood that, in Crawford’s words, “wasn’t as pleasant as it might have been” and that has left her with “awful moods” that often driver her from “the midst of a party.”

Motherhood Misconceived: Representing the Maternal in U.S. Films edited by Mary Kate Goodwin-Kelly, Elaine Roth and Heather Addison (2009)

Hundreds of girls and young women were attracted yesterday to the Capitol Theatre and their presence probably was due chiefly to the title of the film feature, “Our Dancing Daughters,” a chronicle concerned with the wild young people of this generation. The Capitol now is equipped for the reproduction of sounds, which fact was only too patent yesterday, for while “Our Dancing Daughters” is not furnished with dialogue, it has a musical accompaniment, several love songs, stentorian cheering and, at the end, a chorus of shrieks.

Whether this audible mixture adds to the entertainment value of the picture is a matter of opinion. It assuredly detracts from the action of the picture in some of the sequences. The romantic melodies that accompany the love-sick looks and the violent embraces of the principal characters are reminiscent of the oldtime singing to lantern slides. The enthusiastic cheering impresses one as though the producers wanted to make the most of sound, and the shrieks in the closing scenes come from mute figures to whom terror has suddenly given tongues.

There is nothing startingly novel about “Our Dancing Daughters,” for while there is an undeniable vivacity to many of the scenes, the action is not particularly well portrayed and it is frequently anything but conservative. Cocktails, flasks and mad dancing appear in quite a number of episodes. It is quite unnecessary to depict an intoxicated girl, as is done for considerable length in this film. Presumably it is to point a moral, for the young woman falls to her death down a flight of stairs.

The wide-eyed Joan Crawford, who is attractive in many of the scenes, figures as one of the dancing daughters. After an unusually violent terpsichorean performance, this young woman, known as Diana, suddenly takes an interest in Ben Blain, a stranger to the hectic life but the son and heir of a multi-millionaire.

Harry Beaumont, the director, has among his worthy sequences in this film, one in which the fractious Diana tells her companion, Beatrice, that she is in love. This incident is quite appealing and it caused great glee yesterday afternoon.

But Diana is doomed to be disappointed, for a little blonde, the daughter of a mercenary mother, succeeds in capturing the heart of the peculiarly susceptible Mr. Blain. This fair-haired minx, named Anne, soon leads Mr. Blain to the altar and poor Diana is left to brood over a blighted life. Josephine Lovett, who wrote “Our Dancing Daughters,” cannot be accused of much subtlety in ridding Mr. Blain of his tempestuous bride.

John Mack Brown is sympathetic as Mr. Blain. Dorothy Sebastian is appealing as Beatrice. Anita Page gives a fairly good portrayal of her idea of a dancing daughter.

The New York Times by Mordaunt Hall, October 8, 1928

Our Modern Maidens (1929)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Directed by Jack Conway.  Story and Continuity by Josephine Lovett.  Titles by Marian Ainslee and Ruth Cummings.  Cinematography by Oliver T. Marsh.  Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons.  Film Editing by Sam Zimbalist.  Costume Design by Adrian.  Music by Arthur Lange and William Axt.  Released:  September 8, 1929.  76 minutes.

Joan Crawford…………………………………………………………………. Billie
Rod La Rocque……………………………………………………………… Abbott
Douglas Fairbanks Jr…………………………………………………………… Gil
Anita Page……………………………………………………………….. Kentucky
Edward J. Nugent……………………………………………………………… Reg
Josephine Dunn…………………………………………………………….. Ginger
Albert Gran…………………………………………………… B. Bickering Brown

Trusting in the obscure wisdom of the studio’s notions of casting its future stars, Crawford almost always cooperated with Metro’s dictums in the hope that her slightly truculent obedience would be rewarded.  As usual her career instincts bore her out; her next film was to be a follow-up to Our Dancing Daughters, and she was further promised star biling and the salary and prestige that accompanied it.  She was the last player officially raised to stardom in a silent picture, thus presiding over the end of an epoch in movies while anxiously preparing to usher in a new one.

The occasion for this event was an unpretentious opus called Our Modern Maidens (1929), which capitalized on Crawford’s publicized romance with co-star Douglas Our Modern Maidens (1929)Fairbanks, Jr., as well as the success of Our Dancing Daughters.  Rather more turgid in tone than its predecessor, it emphasized the mis-mated amours of its characters over their youthful skylarks.  Once more Crawford is a leader of post-deb society, and Anita Page, the one other principal retained from Our Dancing Daughters, is a piquant Southern pal of Joan’s with the quaint name of Kentucky.  Their affairs with Fairbanks and Rod La Rocque become progressively tangled, but after a series of misunderstandings, illicit preganancies, and annulments ensure, the likely couples are apporpirately united in the final reel.

The script and direction are rather hackneyed and Crawford is overemphatic throughout, but it hardly mattered.  All the fans knew was that she alternated her sieges of injured suffering with semi-clad dance routines in her celebrated style, and that was sufficient.  Although talkies were firmly entrenched by the time Our Modern Maidens was released, it found a large and eager public.

Yet undeniably the handwriting was on the wall.  Even Our Dancing Daughters had been exhibited with recorded sound effects the year before, and by now Crawford was the only female star at the studio save Garbo who had not yet risked her future with a talking debut.  The success or failure of such an undertaking would determine whether Crawford would be classed as a temporary whim of the fans, thanks to ne sure-fire role, or a durable personality in her own right.  This was the first crucial test of Crawford’s adaptability and determination to stay at the top, and the outcome was emphatically up to her.

Joan Crawford by Stephen Harvey (1974)

Pleased with the connection to Hollywood’s first family and heartened by good returns from Joan’s latest film with William Haines, The Duke Steps Out, Louis B. Mayer anointed Joan with the status of star and announced that her next film would be Our Modern Maidens, co-starring her fiancé, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Joan and Douglas were thrilled to be working together.  They had dressing rooms adjacent to each other, and they announced their presence to each other with a special Our Modern Maidens (1929)whistle.  They confounded their fellow works by speaking a form of pig latin that only Joan and Douglas could understand.  After completing Our Modern Maidens, they placed their footprints in the forecourt of Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater, then went off to get married in New York.  It seemed judicious to perform the ceremony as far removed from Pickfair as possible, and they were wed June 3, 1929, in St. Malachy’s church.  Father Edward Leonard, Douglas’ spiritual adviser, performed the ceremony.  Among the few guests were Beth Sully Fairbanks (Doug’s Mother) and Jack Whiting, the Broadway song-and-dance man she was to marry in two months.  Douglas Fairbanks Sr. sent a belated message of congratulations.

Joan Crawford: A Biography by Bob Thomas (1979)

Much more than the first film in the series, Our Modern Maidens places the accent of interest squarely on Crawford.  It opens on the same high note of speed, youth and pleasurable promiscuity.  After dancing the night away at some country club, the girls and their beaux, jam-packed into open roadsters, race each other back to the school gates where an impromptu fling–‘What are our thoughts on leaving school?  All together, girls–MEN, MEN, MEN!’–is staged under the art deco hoarding advertising the products of Joan’s motor-magnate father, J. Bickering Brown.  There’s the customary Crawford dance, peppy, preppy and provocative, and then she is seen off to the dorm by the young man she has secretly promised to marry.  He is played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Six weeks before shooting started, after a courtship lasting a year and half, Crawford and Fairbanks had publicly announced their own engagement.  Louis B. Mayer opposed the match the minute he got wind of it.  Romance between a movie company’s contract artists was one thing.  It was good publicity, for a start.  Life seemed to be an extension of art and the fans could imagine themselves privy to the real romance while paying to see the scripted one.  But marriage was another matter.  An alliance of talents consecrated by marriage, a knot much trickier to untie than an option-loaded film contract,, could work against a studio’s plans for the independent careers of husband and wife, especially if one of the partners was more popular at the box-office than the other.  Fairbanks was under contract to First National studios: employing him on loan could be expensive if his wife-to-be, under contract to MGM, wanted him as her co-star.  Anyhow, Mayer’s instinct, which at this period was seldom wrong, told him that Crawford’s box-office appeal rested on her image of zestful independence, not settled matrimony.  On the other hand, Crawford assured him that she and Fairbanks had no intention of making more than one picture together–they didn’t want to commercialize their love, she explained.  Mayer made the best of the situation, yet managed to have his own way, too.  For although Fairbanks was cast as Crawford’s fiancé, he was never, as it was worked out, destined to remain her celluloid husband.

Our Modern Maidens is a less well-known film than Our Dancing Daughters and it is often assumed that if its romance doesn’t run smoothly, at least it ends happily.  The Our Modern Maidens (1929)reverse is true.  Half-way through the story, Fairbanks slips off from his fiancée’s houseparty with her best friend, played again by Anita Page.  They cross the ornamental lake in a gondola, and before the fade-out in the shrubbery on the island, the champagne has gone to Doug’s head and Anita is in his arms.  The girl’s consequent pregnancy, conveyed by Anita Page in protracted gasps and shakes as if she had just escaped a hurricane, is revealed just too late to stop the engaged couple’s wedding, but it throws their honeymoon plans into instant disarray.  ‘What do you think of a groom-less honeymoon?  “Modern”, isn’t it?  I’m just setting the fashion.’  And with that, Crawford deserts her new husband, swaggers off alone through the aghast and gossiping guests, gets shunned by Society and picks up an annulment in Paris.  She later turns up in South America to wed Rod La Rocque, who has been the film’s jilted lover–while Fairbanks, presumably, does right by Anita Page.

The film was another huge success, largely because of what Variety called Crawford’s ‘far-fetched but vivid’ performance as the girl who has everything, including a private railroad car in which she shoots craps, an inexhaustible penchant for dancing in her underwear and generally living it up every hour of the night (the day was for sleeping) in a Cedric Gibbons set of millionaire’s art deco which runs to a living-room apparently three storeys high and a staircase that incorporates what looks like a high-diver’s spring-board at its apex.  Yet some critics and public felt Crawford had married the wrong man: they preferred Fairbanks to La Rocque.  The earlier film had provided a handy staircase to do away with inconvenient Anita Page: it shouldn’t have been beyond the wits of the eight writers who worked on the screenplay to convey the accident-proneness of someone who lives in precarious art deco décor as well as by promiscuous sex.  In one version of the script, Crawford and Fairbanks were re-united.  But Louis B. Mayer had the final say.  Crawford was to marry inside the MGM ranks, which meant her fellow contract artist Rod La Rocque.

Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Star by Alexander Walker
Authorized by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1983)

MGM’s “history” of the wedding insists that the New York trip was L.B. Mayer’s idea.  It was nothing of the sort.  He didn’t even know about it until Billie (Joan Crawford) wired him.  Taking a honeymoon was out of the question since we both had jobs to return to.  But for a very few days in New York, and to the delight of the crowds wherever we went, we managed to see a few of the latest plays and enjoy ourselves.

A few weeks later in California we were astonished by a telegram from Mother and Jack (Whiting), announcing that they had married.  We were dumbfounded.  And I was relieved.  A great deal of Mother’s pressure on me would now be lifted.  I had a new stepfather–charming, gifted, and only about eight or nine years older than I.  A devoted mother’s boy himself, Jack, I imagined, might become both a proxy for me and for my never-forgotten father in Mother’s life.

The bright Crawford skyrocket notwithstanding, her next few pictures were quite indifferent.  However, they did further confirm her ever-growing personal popularity.  Our Modern Maidens (1929)They were designed to trade on the success of Our Dancing Daughters and with that paucity of imagination for which Hollywood in the thirties was famous, her next was called Our Modern Maidens.  (MGM couldn’t let well enough alone.  Sometime later, poor Billie had to make a third one: Our Blushing Brides.  Even I, long before, had had to appear in a bit of trash called Modern Mothers–but without the Our.)  Billie’s leading man in Our Modern Maidens was an old Malibu Beach camp friend, Rod La Rocque.  And just to jolly up the potential box office, MGM “borrowed” me from First National to play the second lead.

It was a good exploitations stunt but we went ahead with mixed feelings.  It was pleasant enough to work together, though we felt like commercialized puppets, and I was self-conscious.  Mine was a silly, amicable part.  In one sequence I had a specialty act–a sop, as it were, to my and First National’s egos.  I was expected to do my “party piece,” which comprised a series of mimed imitations of well-know picture personalities.  They included my father, John Barrymore, Jack Gilbert, and Maurice Chevalier.  I’d started doing them for fun at parties.  Once I’d performed in the luxurious beach house of Irving Thalberg, who, besides being creative boss of MGM, was the husband of one if its most beautiful stars, Norma Shearer.  Because Billie was so jealous of her, she was Billie’s bête noire.  I’d been a nervous young bachelor at the time and flattered to be asked to that sophisticated party.

The Salad Days by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1988)

Further adventures of a group of skylarking youngsters of this age of speed are depicted rather interestingly in “Our Modern Maidens,” a silent film with sporadic Our Modern Maidens (1929)outbursts of song which owes its being chiefly to Josephine Lovett, who was also responsible for the story of that other wild youth experiment, “Our Dancing Daughters.” This current effusion is perhaps a trifle more restrained and better acted than its predecessors, but its plot is no tower of strength, being more or less reminiscent of an old melodrama in 1929 clothes. Instead of trailing gowns, there are abbreviated skirts and hansom cabs are replaced by shining, high-powered automobiles.

Joan Crawford, her husband. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the golden-haired Anita Page and Rod La Rocque are the principals in this offering. Miss Crawford and Mr. Fairbanks Jr. go through a marriage ceremony, but in this piece of fiction their marital happiness is ended abruptly through the hysterical conduct of the girl, known as Kentucky (Miss Page). It is revealed, after Gil (Mr. Fairbanks) and Billie (Miss Crawford) have dawdled away from the altar, that Kentucky has a definite reason for objecting to the marriage. This results in the bride appearing alone before the battery of cameras and also in her sacrificing her father’s confidence. She is a dauntless girl, who takes her misfortunes with a smile, which was not exactly, received in a sympathetic manner by an audience in the Capitol Theatre yesterday afternoon.

All’s well that ends well, however, and to give this picture a cheerful conclusion Rod La Rocque encounters Billie in Paris and one presumes that after arrangements have been made for their marriage they enjoy a blissful existence.

Jack Conway, producer of this film, emphasizes the marriage ceremony between Billie and Gil. There are the clergy, the hosts of friends, the procession of maids of honor and Our Modern Maidens (1929)the little page. At the party in the house there is the modernistic wedding cake and the gay coterie of young and old. All this is pictured, if anything, far too lavishly. But the same criticism applies to the film as a whole, for the narrative as it emerges on the screen carries little conviction and has not even the strength of an old melodrama with the self-same theme.

Miss Page is pretty, but her portrayal of intense grief is not especially impressive. Miss Crawford does well enough as the girl who encourages a diplomat’s attentions with the hope that he may help Gil. Mr. La Rocque is sympathetic in his rôle, but it is surprising that he indulges his fancy for a sweater that reminds one of the Van Cortlandt Park golf course. Douglas Fairbanks gives a competent performance, and during the youthful escapades he not only mimics John Gilbert and John Barrymore but also imitates his own father’s gestures and expressions in the film “Robin Hood.”

The New York Times by Mordaunt Hall, September 7, 1929

Joining me for the evening was Ronda, David and Chris.

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