Nearly a decade before Clara Bow would be immortalized in film as the girl with "it", Olive Thomas had "it" in spades. A vivacious and outgoing character, Olive was one of Hollywood's brightest stars, though she only made a relatively small number of films before her tragic death in 1920 at the age of 25. Unfortunately, most of her films have been lost, and for years the only one of her films in circulation was a copy of Love's Prisoner (1919) that was missing the last reel. That is no longer the case. Milestone has released The Flapper (1920), Olive Thomas' most famous film, along with a documentary about the young star and some very nice bonus material in The Olive Thomas Collection.
Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart (57 minutes):
This documentary gives a nice overview of the screen star's life. Olive Thomas' story was the classic rags to riches tale that every young starlet dreams about. Born into a working class family in the coal mining town of Charleroi Pennsylvania, Olive was married at 16 and worked behind the counter at a local department store. Then, at the age of 18 she decided to change her life. She divorced her, by some accounts abusive, husband, something that was fairly rare in those days, and moved to New York City.
There she found herself behind another department store counter, but she wouldn't stay there for long. A local paper was running a contest to find the most beautiful girl in New York. Olive called in sick to work and went to the contest. She won, and was suddenly the toast of the town. She started modeling full time, and was a favorite among the top illustrators of the day. It wasn't long before the famous producer Florenz Ziegfeld put her in his follies where the ravishing beauty was a big hit. Florenz, who was having an affair with his new starlet, commissioned Alberto Vargas to paint a nude of Olive, which she posed for. Afterwards Vargas painted her again, from memory, and kept that painting in his private collection until he died. (Reproduced below.)
Olive was the toast of the town, and she was courted by several eligible bachelors. In 1916 she ended up marring Jack Pickford, and actor and younger brother of the superstar Mary Pickford. This is when she made the jump to movies where she would become one of the biggest actresses in Hollywood.
Over the next three and a half years, Olive would make 21 movies.
Working constantly, and rarely seeing her husband with whom she had a stormy
relationship, she and Jack took a second honeymoon and went to Paris after
production of Everybody's Sweetheart wrapped up. There they
got along well by all accounts, staying up until all hours drinking and
carousing. One evening after a long night, Olive couldn't sleep.
According to Jack, she got up to take some sleeping powder, but grabbed
a bottle of Mercury Bichloride and accidently consumed that instead.
She screamed as the poison burned her throat, but it was too late.
She died five painful days later in a Hospital in France.
This documentary gives a very good account of the actresses life. Even though it is less than an hour in length, it is fairly complete. Olive lived such a short life, and was only in the spotlight for a few years that there really isn't a lot to say.
Told through interviews with scholars and some of Olive's living relatives along with clips from her films and publicity photos, this documentary paints a vivid picture of the actress. It neither whitewashes over her flaws nor emphasizes them. They mention that she had affairs with married men, and was extravagant in her lifestyle, but they also showed how hard she worked at her craft. A nicely balanced view of a star who was cut down in her prime.
In this film Olive plays Ginger King, the 16 year old daughter of a Senator from Florida. He sends her off to a finishing school in New York state, and gets more than he bargained for. While she's there, she falls for a much older man, Richard Channing (William Carleton) who rides past the school every day and is admired by all the girls. After taking a fall on the road one winter day, Ginger manages to get a ride home from Channing. Turning on her charm and telling him that she's 20, Ginger gets Channing to invite her to a dance that evening.
Sneaking out after cerfew, Ginger arrives at the dance all decked out. Another student at the school though, Hortense, lets the head mistress, Miss Paddle, know what Ginger is up to. Miss Paddle takes off in a rush, and finds Ginger at the dance. She thoroughly embarrasses the girl by pulling her out of the hall, and gives Channing a good tongue lashing for being out with someone so young. Before she goes, Ginger over hears Channing talking to his friends: "That's what you get for being nice to a kid of that sap-headed pin-feathered age." (Does this mean that he knew she was under-age?) This comment cuts Ginger to the core.
It turns out that Hortense had a reason for ratting on Ginger. While Miss Paddle is gone the young girl opens the school safe and steals all of the money and the student's jewelry that was being held there. Then she and her accomplice take off for New York City.
Once in New York, Hortense and her beau are living it up, but they become paranoid that the police are closing in on them. So they come up with a plan. They wire Ginger anonymously and ask her to come to their hotel before she goes home on vacation. When she shows up, they give her suitcases with the stolen loot and threaten her life if she doesn't take them with her. They plan on meeting her in Florida and retrieving the goods when the heat dies down.
When Ginger sees the jewelery and Hortense's clothes in the cases, she decides to use them to her advantage: she'll dress up as a high society flapper, and convince Richard Channing, and everyone else, that she's no 'sap-headed' kid!
I enjoyed seeing Olive Thomas in this movie, although it wasn't a great film. Thomas is certainly pretty, but that's not enough to carry the movie. The plot drags at the beginning, with not much happening for the first half. Even the dance scene is rather anticlimactic, with Ginger dancing, drinking some punch and then leaving. The movie really shifts into high gear in the last half hour though, when the young girl decides to become a flapper. This is where most of the laughs are, and the way they dress Olive up for the role is great. The ending makes up the the slow start.
While Olive wasn't a great actress, she did make a convincing teenager. She played a giddy young school girl well. It was quite interesting seeing her (at the age of 25) play a 16 year old girl who was trying to act like someone in their 20's.
The direction was fairly standard for the time, mostly medium and long shots with very little camera movement. Director Alan Crosland (who is best know for directing The Jazz Singer in 1927) did include some interesting touches though. In one scene he films a pair of people talking to Olive, with the star only being visible in a mirror on a dresser. In another he places the camera at the top of a ski ramp and pans down to track the skiers as they make a run.
The biggest problem with the film is that Crosland didn't have a good sense of comedy timing, and it hampers the movie. In one of the funniest scenes in the movie, Ginger, despondent over the fact that Channing thinks of her as a mere child, decides to hang herself. She gets a cord from a curtain and ties an inexpert knot around her neck. She then has trouble tying the other end around a light fixture. The scene is comical in itself, but mainly because the viewer knows that the suicide attempt will fail. The punch line to the scene, when she jumps off the bed and finds the rope is much too long, didn't work because it was rushed, and you didn't see Ginger's reaction to the failed attempt. Crosland also cross cut the end of the scene with one of Hortense getting ready to flee with the loot, which broke the comic mood.
Even with the films flaws, this isn't a bad movie. It has a lot of charm and some memorable moments. While some of the plot elements were a little silly and the beginning is a tad slow, but the end is worth it. It is also interesting to see the depiction of New York night life in 1920. After hearing of Olive Thomas for years, it was a treat to finally see her in a movie.
This film is accompanied by a piano score preformed by Robert Isreal. It is a good score, scene specific, and fits the tone of the movie well. The audio quality is very good, with the music coming through clean and clear. There are no sound effects added.
The print from the Eastman House Collection looks splendid. There is a good amount of contrast, and the picture is sharp for a film of this age. Digital defects were nonexistent, though there were some minor defects in the print. A few scratches and instances of dirt were present, but these were less frequent than I anticipated. This is a very nice looking film.
The film is tinted, but the tinting is a contemporary manufacture, and the scheme was not copied from the Eastman print which presumably isn't tinted. While the purist in me dislikes having a tint scheme that wasn't authentic, I have to admit that the producers of this DVD did a good job. The movie was almost assuredly meant to be tinted. There are a couple of places in the film where actions take place that the tinting emphasizes; when Ginger turns out the lights in her room when she hears Hortense in the hall for example. The quick action wouldn't make much sense in a non-tinted print, since the lighting doesn't change at all. In the end I decided that the tinting benefitted the movie. After all, if someone objects to it, they can always turn down the color.
Milestone has included a couple of fun extras on this disc. First are a pair of reenactments of stories about Olive, with Olive being played by her grand niece who does bear some resemblance. The first didn't come off that well, but the second was pretty funny.
There is also an "illustrated interview" with Bernard King Thomas, Olive's first husband. In this piece a newspaper interview from 1931 is read while pictures of Olive are shown. It was very interesting to hear her husband's take on their marriage and her fame. I'm very glad they were able to dig this up.
There were a lot of songs written about Olive Thomas when she was a film star. Two of them are presented on this disc, Glorious Lady and The More I See of Somebody Else, the More I Think of You.
The disc is rounded out by a minute and a half reel of stills.
The package that Milestone has put together for this release is spectacular. In addition to an excellent print for The Flapper, there is a very complete and even handed documentary, reproduction of an interview with Olive's first husband, songs written about the actress, and a pair of anecdotes concerning Olive that are reenacted. While the feature itself is not outstanding, it is a good film that shows Olive's beauty and acting ablility. A very nice collection and well worth checking out. A high Recommendation.