Monday, June 28, 2010

"The Flapper" (1920) Olive Thomas

“The Flapper” (1920) is a silent romantic comedy starring Olive Thomas, Warren Cook, Theodore Westman, Jr., and William P. Carlton, Jr. Directed by Alan Crosland and adapted from the story by Frances Marion, this film is about an innocent teenage school girl who pretends to be a flapper. The story begins with Ginger King, played by Olive Thomas, living in Orange Springs, Florida, where having an ice cream soda with a boy is considered scandalous. Due to her yearnings for an exciting life, Ginger’s strict father, Senator King, played by Warren Cook, sends her to a girl’s boarding school in upstate New York. Ginger soon makes friends with the girls at the boarding school and joins them in their favorite game: dreaming and imagining things about a mysterious and handsome older man, Richard Channing, played by William P. Carlton, Jr., who rides on his horse past their school every day. While living at the boarding school, Ginger is reacquainted with Bill Forbes, played by Theodore Westman, Jr., the boy she had an ice cream soda with back in Orange Springs, who is at the local military academy. One day while out riding with Bill in a horse-drawn sleigh, the sleigh overturns, the horse and sleigh dart off, and Bill disappears in pursuit. Just as Ginger is trying to get up from the snow, along comes the handsome and mysterious Richard Channing who helps her up. At this point, Ginger fools Richard into thinking that she is a twenty-year-old woman instead of a sixteen year old school girl, and he invites her to a dance at the nearby country club that night. Ginger sneaks out and goes to the dance, but one of the girls, Hortense, played by Katherine Johnston, tells Mrs. Paddles, the headmistress, played by Marcia Harris, of her disappearance. Hortense’s motive is to get Mrs. Paddles out of the way so she can rob the school’s safe and sneak away with her crooked boyfriend, Tom Morran, played by Arthur Housman. After receiving a mysterious telegram from Hortense, Ginger stops by a New York City hotel on her way home from school where her former classmate and her boyfriend are staying. Hortense and Tom force Ginger to take the suitcases containing fancy clothes and jewelry with her to Orange Springs. Knowing that Richard has gone to Orange Springs on a yachting trip, Ginger decides to use the clothes and jewelry and pretend to be a woman of the world when she goes home. Unfortunately, the plan backfires.

Of all the Ziegfeld Follies girls who entered films, the long list includes Marion Davies, Louise Brooks, and Paulette Goddard, the one with the most going for her seemed to be Olive Thomas. Olive had one of those faces which would be considered beautiful in any era. Her large eyes and thin, delicate features, topped by thick brown curls, look remarkably modern to us today. Artist Harrison Fisher later called her “the prettiest girl on the New York stage.” Ziegfeld seems to have developed feelings for Olive and was reportedly crushed when she married Mary Pickford’s brother Jack in 1917. Ziegfeld who was married to Billie Burke at the time, got over it. Olive couldn’t have picked a worse husband than twenty-one-year old Jack Pickford. Like many alcoholics and drug addicts, he was charming on the surface. By the time she became Mrs. Pickford, Olive was also a film star. In October 1916, she was signed for films by Triangle and moved west. With her beauty, she became a popular star, and the fact that she was a quick learner and hard worker assured her success. By 1919, Olive’s career pace was picking up. She was signed by Selznick that year, at an impressive $2,500 a week. However, all was not well in Olive’s life. Her marriage to Jack Pickford was proving unbearable, and there were signs that she may have been using drugs as well. On August 12, 1920, Jack and Olive sailed for London, then to Paris, to mend their troubled marriage and relax from film work. Things came to a tragic end on the night of September 6 when, after a night on the town, Olive was found writhing on the bathroom floor in her hotel suite. Jack summoned help, and she was rushed to the American Hospital at Neuilly. On September 9, Olive died from bichloride of mercury poisoning, after several agonizing days of blindness, paralysis, and convulsions. Olive Thomas’ death has long been one of Hollywood’s darkest mysteries. The official story was told by Jack and reportedly by Olive herself, from her deathbed. This has Olive getting up with a midnight headache and searching for aspirin powder in the darkened bathroom. There, she accidentally drank a mixture of twelve grams of bichloride of mercury in alcohol. The fact that the mixture was used to treat syphilis hardly reflected well on Jack Pickford. However, it was better than the other scenarios being spread: Olive had committed suicide after Jack gave her syphilis, Olive committed suicide because of her husband’s drug addiction, Olive herself was a drug addict, Jack killed her for the insurance money. The theories went on and on, and no one will ever know for sure.

For many years, the one and only Olive Thomas feature film that was available on video was “Love’s Prisoner” (1919), and it is missing the final reel. Milestone Films released a DVD of “The Flapper” (1920) along with a documentary on Thomas entitled “Everybody’s Sweetheart” in 2005. A few Thomas’ films exist in archives, but most have disappeared entirely. “The Flapper” is an enjoyable film mainly because of the presence of Olive Thomas. Olive had great comedic timing and a magnetic presence that simply lights up the screen. She had expressive features and subtle, natural mannerisms that were appropriate for silent films. Olive knew how to convey emotion without the use of exaggerated actions that were very common in the teens. One of the things that impressed me the most about the film is that it is visually beautiful with gorgeous wintry exteriors that were filmed near Ithaca, New York and some shots of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Largely forgotten today, "The Flapper" (1920) is a great opportunity to rediscover one of the silent screen's most delightful personalities.

*It is interesting to note that Norma Shearer and her sister Athole have uncredited roles in this film.


  1. Silent, What an Awesome review for the remarkable silent film star, Olive Thomas!

  2. Dawn, I love the beautiful photos you have posted of Olive Thomas. The Flapper is such an enjoyable film. Olive Thomas' performance made the film worth watching. The wintry exteriors were beautiful and filmed on location. Thank you for posting the Olive Thomas video too.

  3. Silent, Thank you, for this weeks silent film fix. :)


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