- The Olive Thomas Collection: The Flapper, and: Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart
Over the past two decades there has been a gradual but noticeable shift in the tastes of silent film audiences. Due in part to the rapid growth and high penetration rates of inexpensive home video formats and a growing body of research on early cinema, audiences now have greater exposure and access to films, filmmakers, and national cinemas that had once been excluded from traditional narratives about the development of cinema.1 This has reinvigorated the study of silent film and led to a reevaluation of its canons. Recently indications of this shift include the release of DVD box sets of early films by African American, Native American, and Asian American directors, collections of gay-themed silents, early women directors, and avant-garde films, as well as retrospectives of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian silents at festivals from Italy to San Francisco. Clearly mainstream interest in traditionally underrepresented areas has never been higher.2
Milestone Film and Video, cofounded in 1990 by Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, has been a key contributor to the popular and academic promotion of silent-era film. As part of its mission to "discover and distribute films of enduring artistry," Milestone has made great efforts to release a variety of mainstream and neglected films that range from the canonical Phantom of the Opera (1925) to such legendary "lost" titles as Beyond the Rocks (1922). The Olive Thomas Collection is the latest in a series of documentaries on silent performers released as part of the Milestone Collection. According to the brief essay on the disk's jacket, Olive Thomas was "one of the first onscreen flappers" and this DVD contains The Flapper (1920), one of her last screen appearances before her untimely death. The disk also includes a made-for-television documentary on her life and career entitled Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart (Andi Hicks, 2004), which was produced [End Page 159] by Timeline Films. Included as an extra, The Flapper is the real centerpiece of the collection and is complemented by the documentary. Taken together the films produce an effect greater than the sum of their parts.
Written by renowned screenwriter Frances Marion (the subject of Without Lying Down , another fine documentary distributed by Milestone), The Flapper tells the story of sixteen-year-old Genevieve "Ginger" King, a young girl who is sent to live in a New York boarding school by Senator King, her authoritarian father. Ginger wants desperately to be treated as an adult and will do anything in search of experience and adventure. Energetic and impetuous, Ginger is an extension of the cross-dressing, upperclass girl-heroes first popularized in the teens and embodied by the likes of Gloria Swanson in Danger Girl (1917) or Pearl White in her serials. In contrast to boy-heroes like Charles Ray or (pre–costume film) Douglas Fairbanks, Ginger does not seek adventure in order to escape from the responsibilities of adult society. Instead, she actively and at times awkwardly seeks out those responsibilities from which she is excluded. Eventually, she finds more adventure than she can handle and winds up assuming a phony identity in order to teach her parents a lesson and "vamp" an older man with whom she is infatuated. She narrowly escapes being framed by jewel thieves before the film winds its way to its inevitable happy ending.
Throughout, Thomas effectively communicates Ginger's sense of adolescent awe for the "dangerous" double lives she is certain all adults lead. There is a relaxed confidence to her performance that resembles that of her real life sister-in-law, Mary Pickford. Like Pickford, Thomas (who was twenty-five at the time) is called upon to play the role of a girl nearly ten years her junior. She ably conveys an almost palpable sense of awkward immaturity, both physical and emotional.
The Flapper was the second of three films in which Thomas was directed by journeyman...