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If younger people today cannot identify movie stars like Cary Grant or Marlene Dietrich, they can hardly be expected to know who famous silent personalities like Mary Pickford were. Milestone has come up with an entertaining feature and documentary about a major star who was equally famous, before disappearing into obscurity.
The Olive Thomas Collection presents one of Ms. Thomas' last features in excellent condition. It is noted as the first film to feature a character who identifies herself as a 'flapper.' Olive Thomas was at the top of the celebrity pyramid when she died in 1920 - at the age of twenty-five.
The Flapper is a diverting comedy apart from the collection's historical agenda. Writer Frances Marion (herself the subject of a fine Milestone DVD, Without Lying Down) concocts the perfect scenario for inquisitive females of 1920: The slightly spoiled and mischievous rich girl Ginger King eagerly looks for 'adventure,' finding a lot of harmless trouble along the way. Some of the social ideas are old-fashioned even for 1920, but there's nothing unrealistic about the thrill of a 16 year-old wanting to project the allure of a 'fallen woman.' While honorable bachelor Richard Channing gasps at the idea that she might have lost her virginity (only an allusion, of course), Ginger dramatizes that she may become a 'dope fiend' in order to forget.
A choice bit of unrepentant (titled) dialogue:
Ginger: "I'm getting it as fast as I can!"
Director Alan Crosland goes easy on the thriller machinations to concentrate on Ginger's personality, allowing us to watch Olive Thomas score as every schoolgirl's fantasy projection. Unlike her sister-in-law Mary Pickford, Olive's characters don't sell an illusion of childhood innocence. All the kids in the picture like nothing more than getting into trouble, and Ginger never misses an opportunity to sneak off with a boy or slip out to a chi-chi dance with a mysterious neighbor. She's also a more convincing teen than Pickford and more naturalistic in her acting. Already a stage star, Olive saw no need to be anybody but herself on screen.
Milestone's excellent print of The Flapper allows us to see a 1920 film without having to guess at its original appearance. The intertitles are particularly interesting. One shot of a young boy claiming to be an expert horseman shows a toddler rocking on a hobby horse. The about-face of the villains when they enter a room filled with police is mirrored in an intertitle that likewise flip-flops, turning backwards. 1 Also, the film ends by breaking into a different form - a Newsreel title comes up before we see a repentant Ginger happily drinking soda pop with a boy her own age.
Marion contrives the idea of thieves finding a cache of jewelry in an office safe in a girl's school just so that Thomas can show up in a New York nightclub wearing standard 'flapper' costuming. This includes a string of pearls on her forehead as seen in the classic Clara Bow photos. But the only dancing Thomas does is by herself in her dorm room, a quick jig with a ukelele. More typical of Ginger's level of sophistication is her reaction when a gentleman's flowers are delivered along with a romantic note: She falls in a cross-eyed faint before her envious friends.
Milestone rounds out the disc with a 2004 documentary financed by Hugh Hefner called Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart made by Sarah Baker and Andi Hicks and narrated by Rosanna Arquette. Although not free of some weak docu writing ("Olive kept her spirits up by helping with the war effort") the overall quality is excellent, with plenty of well-researched photos and documents helping to chart the rise of a home-grown starlet circa 1915. Escaping an early marriage to a miner, Olive hit the big time in New York, leaping from a job as a store clerk to a stint as a celebrated model (we see a real Vargas illustration) and from there straight to the top at Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies.
It's unclear how many lovers Olive took along the road of her career, but the docu convinces us that she disrupted Ziegfeld's marriage to Billie Burke. The high life in New York in the late teens sounds every bit as racy as that of later, better documented periods. After little more than a year in the Follies (and an even swankier, naughtier rooftop version for celebrity audiences) Olive turned her attention to the movies, first at Triangle and then through agent Myron Selznick. We're given to understand that she had three Selznicks wrapped around her fingers, including young David; legend has it that Olive was the inspiration when he added the "O" that made him David O. Selznick.
All this time she was married to Jack Pickford, the playboy actor brother of Mary, who was of course the most popular and powerful star in Hollywood. Their wedding was kept secret for a year while Mary got used to the idea; depending on the source, she either never did, or became fast friends with her sister-in-law.
The docu ends with Olive's mysterious 1920 death in Paris, an event that preceded the major Hollywood scandals that generated a crackdown on industry immorality. On a reconciliation vacation, Jack and Olive returned to their hotel late at night and she took a lethal dose of mercury bichloride. An apparently honest inquest found that the poisoning was accidental; she lived for five days blinded and unable to speak before dying. Speculation points to the possibility of suicide and some voices claimed murder. Mercury bichloride was used for the treatment of syphillis, which added to the suspicious talk.
Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart has the benefit of excellent research. One startling newsreel shot shows Thomas sitting with Edna Purviance and Virginia Rappe, the supposed victim in the Fatty Arbuckle case, and we're given a look at Thomas'es original French death certificate. A couple of moments are recreated through iffy 'restagings' but they're very brief. An examination of a scene from The Flapper points out Norma Shearer in a bit part as a schoolgirls. The music score on the docu is particularly good.
Other extras include a selection of stills and a 1931 text interview with Thomas'es first husband. There are also audio performances of two songs written expressly for the actress.
The only weak link in the collection are some 'reenactments of anecdotes' from cameraman Billy Bitzer and writer Lenore Coffee. They're shot on video using a Thomas descendant in her place (not a bad match) but seem affected and confuse the issue. The true way to discover more about the actress is for archivists to redcover more of her movies, as is hoped for in the docu. We're told that one missing Thomas feature was found - with over 500 others - when an Alaskan swimming pool was demolished not long ago. Now that's a strange story.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Olive Thomas Collection rates:
1. There is some confusion
about the intertitles. A disclaimer on the end credits says that they were regenerated by the restorers,
along with the tints on the film. But many contain visual images and even live-action gags that would
be difficult to recreate, so maybe Milestone is talking only about some of them.