F. Scott Fitzgerald Discusses the Cinema Descendants
of the Type He Has Made So Well Known
The term “flapper” has become a generalization, meaning almost any femme between fifteen and twenty-five. Some five years ago it was a thing of distinction—indicating a neat bit of feminity, collegiate age, who rolled her stockings, chain-smoked, had a heavy “line,” mixed and drank a mean highball and radiated “It.”
The manner in which the title has come into such general usage is a little involved, but quite simple. A young man wrote a book. His heroine was one of the n. bits of f. referred to above. “Flapper” was her official classification. The young man’s book took the country by, as they say, storm. Girls—all the girls—read it. They read about the flappers deportment, methods and career. And with a nice simultaneousness they became, as nearly as their varied capabilities permitted, flappers. Thus the frequency of the term today. I hope you get my point.
The young man responsible for it all, after making clear—in his book—the folly of flappers’ ways, married the young person who had been the prototype for the character and started in to enjoy the royalties. The young man was F. Scott Fitzgerald, the book was This Side of Paradise, and the flapper’s name was Zelda. So about six years later they came to Hollywood and Mr. Fitzgerald wrote a screen story for Constance Talmadge. Only people don’t call him Mr. Fitzgerald. They call him “Scotty.”
But we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. The purpose of this discussion was to hear Mr. F. Scott (or Scotch) Fitzgerald’s opinion of the cinema descendants of his original brain-daughter, the Flapper.
It was with an admirable attempt to realize the seriousness of my mission that I went to his bungalow at the Ambassador. Consider, tho! By all literary standards he should have been a middle-aged gentleman with too much waistline, too little hair and steel-rimmed spectacles.
And I knew, from pictures in Vanity Fair and hysterical first-hand reports, that instead he was probably the best-looking thing ever turned out of Princeton. Or even (in crescendo) Harvard—or Yale. Only it was Princeton. Add “It,” and the charming, vibrant, brilliant mind his work projects. My interest was perhaps a bit more than professional.
There was a large tray on the floor at the door of his suite when I reached it. On the tray were bottles of Canada Dry, some oranges, a bowl of cracked ice and—three very, very empty Bourbon bottles. There was also a card. I paused before ringing the bell and bent down to read the inscription—”With Mr. Van Vechten’s kindest regards to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.” I looked for any further message on the other side, but there was none, so I rang the bell.
It was answered by a young man of medium height. With Prince-of-Wales hair and eyes that are, I am sure, green. His features are chiseled finely. His mouth draws your attention. It is sensitive, taut and faintly contemptuous, and even in the flashing smile does not lose the indication of intense pride.
Behind him was Mrs. Fitzgerald, the Rosaline of This Side of Paradise. Slim, pretty like a rather young boy; with one of those schoolgirl complexions and clear gray eyes; her hair as short as possible, slicked back. And dressed as only New Yorkers intangibly radiate smartness.
The two of them might have stepped, sophisticated and charming, from the pages of any of the Fitzgerald books.
They greeted me and discovered the tray hilariously.
“Carl Van Vechten’s going-away gift,” the First Flapper of the Land explained in her indolent, Alabama drawl. “He left this morning after a week’s stay. Said he came here for a little peace and rest, and he disrupted the entire colony.”
In the big, dimly lit room, Mrs. Fitzgerald sank sighing into a chair. She had just come from a Black Bottom lesson. F. Scott moved restlessly from chair to chair. He had just come from a studio conference and I think he’d rather have been at the Horse Show. He was also a trifle disconcerted by the impending interview. In one he had given to an avid press-lady the day before, he had said all his bright remarks. And he couldn’t think up any more in such a short time.
“What, tho, were his opinions of screen flappers? As flappers? As compared to his Original Flappers?”
“Well, I can only,” he began, lighting a cigaret, putting it out and crossing to another chair, “speak about the immediate present. I know nothing of their evolution՝. You see, we’ve been living on the Riviera for three years. In that time the only movies we’ve seen have been a few of the very old pictures, or the Westerns they show over there. I might,” his face brightening, “tell you what I think of Tom Mix.”
“Scotty!” his wife cautioned quickly.
“Oh, well. . . .”
Having exhausted all the available chairs in the room, he returned to the first one and began all over again.
“Have flappers changed since you first gave them the light of publicity? For better? For worse?”
“Only in the superficial matter of clothes, hair-cut, and wise-cracks. Fundamentally they are the same. The girls I wrote about were not a type—they were a generation. Free spirits—evolved thru the war chaos and a final inevitable escape from restraint and inhibitions. If there is a difference, it is that the flappers today are perhaps less defiant, since their freedom is taken for granted and they are sure of it. In my day”—stroking his hoary beard—”they had just made their escape from dull and blind conventionality. Subconsciously there was a hint of belligerence in their attitude, because of the opposition they met—but overcame.
“On the screen, of course, is represented every phase of flapper life. But just as the screen exaggerates action, so it exaggerates type. The girl who, in real life, uses a smart, wise־ cracking line is portrayed on the screen as a hard-boiled baby. The type, one of the most dangerous, whose forte is naiveté, approximates a dumb-dora when she reaches the screen. The exotic girl becomes bizarre. But the actresses who do flappers really well understand them thoroughly enough to accentuate their characteristics without distorting them.”
“How about Clara Bow?”1 I suggested, starting in practically alphabetical order.
“Clara Bow is the quintessence of what the term ‘flapper’ signifies as a definite description. Pretty, impudent, superbly assured, as worldly wise, briefly clad and ‘hard-berled’ as possible. There were hundreds of them—her prototypes. Now, completing the circle, there are thousands more—patterning themselves after her.”
“Colleen Moore2 represents the young collegiate—the carefree, lovable child who rules bewildered but adoring parents with an iron hand. Who beats her brothers and beaus on the tennis-courts, dances like a professional and has infallible methods for getting her own way. All deliciously celluloid—but why not? The public notoriously prefer glamor to realism. Pictures like Miss Moore’s flapper epics present a glamorous dream of youth and gaiety and swift, tapping feet. Youth—actual youth—is essentially crude. But the movies idealize it, even as Gershwin idealizes jazz in the Rhapsody in Blue.
“Constance Talmadge3 is the epitome of young sophistication. She is the deft princess of lingerie—and love—plus humor. She is Fifth Avenue and diamonds and Catalya orchids and Europe every year. She is sparkling, and witty and as gracefully familiar with the new books as with the new dances. I have an idea that Connie appeals every bit as strongly to the girls in the audience as to the men. Her dash—her zest for things—is compelling. She is the flapper de luxe.
“I happened to see a preview the other night, at a neighborhood movie house near here. It was Milton Sills’ latest, I am told. There was a little girl in it—playing a baby-vamp. I found that her name was Alice White.4 She was a fine example of the European influence on our flappers. Gradually, due mostly to imported pictures, the vogue for ‘pose’ is fading.
“European actresses were the first to disregard personal appearance in emotional episodes. Disarranged hair—the wrong profile to the camera—were of no account during a scene. Their abandonment to emotion precluded all thought of beauty. Pola Negri5 brought it to this country. It was adopted by some. But the flappers seem to have been a bit nervous as to the results. It was, perhaps, safer to be cute than character. This little White girl, however, appears to have a flair for this total lack of studied effect. She is the flapper impulsive—child of the moment—wildly eager for every drop of life. She represents—not the American flapper—but the European.
“Joan Crawford6 is doubtless the best example of the dramatic flapper. The girl you see at the smartest night clubs gowned to the apex of sophistication—toying iced glasses, with a remote, faintly bitter expression—dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal with wide, hurt eyes. It takes girls of actual talent to get away with this in real life. When they do perfect the thing, they have a lot of fun with it.
“Then, inevitably, there is the quality that is infallible in any era, any town, any time. Femininity, ne plus ultra. Unless it is a very definite part of a girl, it is insignificant, and she might as well take up exoticism. But sufficiently apparent, it is always irresistible. I suppose she isn’t technically a flapper—but be־ cause she is Femininity, one really should cite Vilma Banky.7 Soft and gentle and gracious and sweet—all the lacy adjectives apply to her. This type is reticent and unassuming—but just notice the quality of orchids on her shoulder as she precedes her reverential escort into the theater.
“It’s rather futile to analyze flappers. They are just girls—all sorts of girls. Their one common trait being that they are young things with a splendid talent for life.”
From Motion Picture Magazine 33 no. 6 (July 1927), pp. 28-29, 104.
1.Clara Bow (1905-1965), the “IT” girl of the twenties. Her films ineluded Dancing Mothers (1926) and It (1927).
2.Colleen Moore (1900-), star of such movies as Flaming Youth (1923), Synthetic Sin (1928) and Lilac Time (1928).
3.Constance Talmadge (1898-) star of Her Sister from Paris (1925).
4.Alice White (?) star of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928). It is not clear which film Scott Fitzgerald is referring to here.
5.Pola Negri (1897-) star of Hotel Imperial (1926).
6.Joan Crawford (1904-) star of The Taxi Dancer (1927),Mildred Pierce (1945),Trog (1970), etc.
7.Vilma Banky (1903-), co-starred with Valentino in The Eagle (1925) and Son of the Sheik (1926).