Do you remember where you were on Wednesday, March 11th, 2020?
I do. I was having lunch with a friend at George’s Chicken at Bloor & Bathurst. I can’t remember what we talked about but I know it wasn’t Covid-19. The overhead TV was on and I remember a newscaster reporting that the NBA had suspended its season due to a player testing positive for the coronavirus but I didn’t think that would affect me. After lunch, my friend and I parted ways and I hopped on the subway to shop for some vintage inspired seamed stockings at Damsels and then I headed to Brentwood Library to pick up a book and a few DVDs that I had placed on hold. I had no idea that by Saturday these simple pleasures – lunch with a friend, clothes shopping and visiting the public library – would be impossible. That day now feels like something out of a dream.
I was thinking about this as I recently watched Our Modern Maidens (1929). The movie is a follow up – though not a sequel – to MGM’s smash hit Our Dancing Daughters (1928), the flapper film that turned the budding young starlet Joan Crawford into a bona fide superstar. In addition to the top-billed Crawford, both movies also feature Anita Page and Edward Nugent, but make no mistake: the real stars of these “mad youth/high society/jazz baby” films are the elaborate sets, glittering gowns, fancy cars and flapper bling. This is Art Deco porn at its most indulgent. Champagne parties (“lunch is poured!”); fireworks viewed from a yacht; sex in a Rolls-Royce; plenty of orchids, feathers and furs and – oh yeah – Joan Crawford dancing half naked in a speakeasy: Our Modern Maidens puts the “roar” in the Roaring Twenties. The film was released on September 8th, 1929: six and a half weeks before Black Thursday and the start of the Great Depression. Talk about a party crash!
Besides the Great Depression, another monumental change was waiting not-so-patiently in the wings during the making of the film: talkies.
Fearing that sound was just an expensive gimmick and believing it a passing fad, MGM was one of the last major studios to make the change over from silent films to talkies but you can see them dipping their toes in the water here: as with its predecessor, Our Modern Maidens is a silent movie with a recorded soundtrack, complete with jazz music and sound effects which include crowds clapping and cheering and even the voice of a radio announcer. It’s all a bit mind-bending. On November 16th of that same year, MGM would release its last silent movie (The Kiss with Greta Garbo).
Also notable about Our Modern Maidens is that it would be the beginning of a real life romance between Crawford and her co-star Douglas Fairbanks Jr.. Crawford and Fairbanks Jr. would marry in June of 1929 when she was 23 and he was just 19 years old.
Fairbanks Jr. is awfully cute in this and there is a delightful party scene where he does some dead-on impressions of MGM stars John Gilbert and John Barrymore, as well as one of his swashbuckling father. However the great Joan Crawford wipes the screen with mere mortal men and Fairbanks is no exception. It would still be a couple of years before she’d find a leading man who could hold a candle to – and not get snuffed out by – her fire. She’d find him in the form of Clarke Gable in 1931’s Dance, Fools, Dance. (Interestingly, in that film Crawford plays a socialite party girl who is forced to find work after her father loses everything in the stock market crash of 1929).
Is there a plot under all this glitter? Well, sort of. Rich college boy Gil (Fairbanks Jr.) is in love with rich college girl* Billie (Crawford). When Billie catches the eye of a successful diplomat (Rod La Rocque), she sets out to seduce him in the hopes of scoring Gil an appointment in the Paris embassy. The seduction works a little too well and Billie ends up falling for the diplomat just as Gil begins to fall for Billie’s best friend Kentucky (Anita Page).
*Note: According to this movie, the only reason why a girl should want to pursue a college education is to meet a husband. (i.e. “What do we think about education, girls?” Answer: “MEN! MEN! MEN!”).
Photo caption: Joan Crawford and Anita Page in a promotional shot for Our Modern Maidens. Fun Fact: Anita Page revealed in later years that Joan Crawford made a pass at her during the filming of Our Dancing Daughters. Disappointing Fact: Anita rebuffed her advances. Too bad because these two make a fetching couple!
Even though the plot sounds pretty typical of young adult movies, Our Modern Maidens has a refreshing and interesting twist. During the film’s elaborate party scene, Gil, jealous that Billie is dancing with the diplomat, agrees to take the lovesick Kentucky for a drive down to the lake. Swept away under a full moon, Kentucky loses her virginity to the distracted Gil. The creation of the automobile was a boon to the love lives of young people: for the first time they could explore romantic possibilities away from the prying eyes of their parents. However there is only so much freedom a girl is allowed: by the end of the movie, after Billie and Gil are married, we find out that Kentucky is pregnant. Then as now, being “swept away” was probably the leading cause of teenage pregnancy. The refreshing part of this is that the movie does not punish or slut-shame Kentucky in any way; instead it presents her as a sweet and romantic girl who got caught up in the moment but is no less a “good girl” because of it. In Code era films, Kentucky would probably die by the film’s end – a punishment for her premarital sexual ways – but not here: instead both Gil and Billie agree to an annulment so that he can be free to marry Kentucky, who is obviously still in love with him (it’s never clear if he is in love with her too or if he is just “doing the right thing”).
Anita Page – in Clara Bow inspired make-up and hairdo – is absolutely adorable here. Billed by MGM as the girl with “the most beautiful face in Hollywood”, Page was a huge star in the late 1920s, reportedly receiving the most amount of fan mail of any star on the lot – excepting Garbo. Unfortunately, as Crawford’s star would continue to rise during the 1930s, Page’s would plummet. In interviews given during her later years, Page said that her falling star was a result of refusing to sleep with a top executive at MGM.
Page’s performance in Our Dancing Daughters is one of my all-time favorites of the silent era. To rephrase Mae West, when Page was good, she was good but when she was bad, she was better! As a good-time bad girl, guzzling bathtub gin and gobbling up men, Page is a hoot! This may be why, although I enjoyed Our Modern Maidens, I like the first film better.
In Our Modern Maidens most memorable scene, leggy Joan Crawford – dressed in a zebra print bikini top decorated with what looks like muppet-hair fringe – dances a strange but sexy prolonged burlesque number, while flashing a bit of Pre-Code bellybutton.
Listen carefully and perhaps under the pounding of the jazz music, you will hear the ticking of a clock…
– Heather Babcock, 2020