Why Be Good?

Directed by William A. Seiter, USA, 1929
Cast Colleen Moore, Neil Hamilton, Bodil Rosing, John St. Polis, Edward Martindel, Louis Natheaux, Lincoln Stedman, Eddie Clayton, Collette Merton, and Dixie Gay
Production First National Pictures Print Source Warner Bros.

Presented at SFSFF 2015
Live Musical Accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Essay by Marilyn Ferdinand

As bright a star as Hollywood ever produced, receiving up to ten thousand letters a week from adoring fans at the peak of her stardom in the mid-1920s, Colleen Moore trusted the wrong people with her life’s work. In 1944, she gave her collection of fifteen nitrate films to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for preservation, including Flaming Youth (1923), the Jazz Age film that had made her a star. The collection joined the seventeen million feet of film in MoMA’s possession. Later, MoMA returned prints of her Warner Bros. films to the studio upon their request, but her First National films remained in the collection and were forgotten. By the time the films were rediscovered, they had disintegrated and Moore spent the rest of her life searching largely in vain for prints of her work.

Happily, some of her thought-lost films have started to reemerge. The delightful comedy Her Wild Oat (1927) was found among the previously unidentified films at the Czech National Film Archive in 2001, which led to its restoration and public exhibition at festivals and art houses around the world, including the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2008.

The recovery of Why Be Good? is a story of two people coming together in the right place at the right time. In 1994, Ron Hutchinson, founder of the Vitaphone Project, presented a program of restored Vitaphone short films at New York’s Film Forum. In his opening remarks, he brought the audience up to date on activities of the organization formed in 1991 to locate soundtrack disks for early Vitaphone and other talkie shorts and features and reunite them, if possible, with their films.

Writing about the occasion, Hutchinson recalled, “I casually mentioned that I recently acquired all the soundtrack disks for Colleen Moore’s Why Be Good? I said something to the effect that ‘unfortunately, this is a lost film.’ Film historian Joseph Yranski, who ran the film library at the Donnell Media Center [a now-closed repository of the New York Public Library system], was a friend of Colleen Moore and knew more about this film than probably anybody on the planet, yelled out ‘No it’s not! I know where it is!’ The full house at Film Forum cheered.” Those cheers were premature, however. It was not until 2012 that Cineteca Italiana di Milano, which housed the print, returned it to the United States for restoration. It was synched with the jazzy Vitaphone soundtrack, which is available on the Warner Bros. DVD. The Silent Film Festival is presenting the film with live music, as was common during the transition to sound.

With the new availability of Why Be Good?, it becomes clear what a crucial find it is. Extant copies of other Colleen Moore films display her physical dexterity, dead-on comedic timing, fresh-faced beauty, and, in talkies like The Power and the Glory (1933), her dramatic abilities. Yet none before has given us the image that launched her into Hollywood’s pantheon of stars—the flapper.

While the source of the word “flapper” is up for debate, there are some indications of its origins. In the 1610s, the term “flap” was sometimes applied to “a young woman of loose character.” In 1747, “flapper” referred to a “young wild-duck or partridge” that flaps its wings while learning to fly. The iconic John Held Jr. drawings of the 1920s illustrated another possible reason for the “flapper” designation: it was a fad among young women to wear unbuckled rubber galoshes that flapped when they walked. Symbol of the Roaring Twenties, the flapper was a young woman who lived for the moment: she drank bootleg liquor, danced until dawn, and explored her sexuality.

Suddenly, too, women flooded the workforce as secretaries and sales clerks, earning their own money and mixing freely with male coworkers and customers. Their generally low wages still kept them living at home with their parents but gave them enough economic freedom to buy the baubles, bangles, and beads of their flapper costumes. Corset-free, with bound breasts, shorter skirts, rolled stockings, low heels, and bobbed hair, the flapper had maximum freedom of movement. Men treated them to gifts, drinks, cover charges, and, while not formally selling sex, flappers likely made a consensual exchange. The rise of automobile ownership—the number of cars on U.S. roads went from 6.8 million to 122 million from the beginning to the end of the decade—abetted this sexual freedom.

Even though fragments of Flaming Youth still exist, we may never know exactly what Moore’s flapper from the movie was like, but, according to film historian Jeanine Basinger, audiences believed they finally had a picture of “just what a young woman who flamed and flapped really looked like. What she looked like was Colleen Moore.” Her Why Be Good? character, Pert Kelly, is the full-blown variety. She lives in an urban area with her parents, works as a sales clerk at a department store, and is a Charleston champion with a jaunty walk who flirts for her food, drink, and entry into trendy jazz joints.

Unlike the frankly sexual movie flappers who came after—Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Joan Crawford—Moore is rather the flapper-next-door, a good girl who pretends to drink and would be humiliated if anyone knew that she wasn’t sexually experienced. In this, her flapper’s lineage descends from Annabelle Moore, of Edison’s flapping butterfly dance shorts, a former Ziegfeld Follies girl and probable model for the Gibson Girl, and Olive Thomas, another Ziegfeld girl, a risqué dancer, and the star of the first flapper feature, The Flapper (1920). Thomas’s version edged timidly into the lifestyle, trying unsuccessfully to smoke a cigarette, and pinning, but not bobbing, her ringlets. Moore’s “dutch cut” became the height of fashion for the Jazz Age’s modern woman, as well as Moore’s trademark and principal hairstyle to the end of her life.

Why Be Good? was one of three films Moore made in 1929 with director William A. Seiter and her producer-husband John McCormick under the aegis of First National Pictures. As the silent era came to an end, so did her marriage and her studio contract. After a three-year hiatus, she made four talkies at four different studios, including one more flapper film, Social Register (1934), with Her Wild Oat director Marshall Neilan. By then, the age of the flapper was over, and so was Moore’s career. Content to leave the limelight, Moore wrote in her 1968 autobiography Silent Star, “I had become at last a ‘private’ person.”

—Marilyn Ferdinand