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  • "The Gland School":Gertrude Atherton and the Two Black Oxen
  • Anne Morey (bio)

Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948) is now almost entirely forgotten, but she was for a time a highly visible American supplier of novels for adaptation to the film industry, lionized and imported to Hollywood by Sam Goldwyn as part of his Eminent Authors project.1 Indeed, she was an international commodity particularly beloved in Britain; inexpensive paperback Tauchnitz editions of her works dominated the market for American popular fiction abroad in the 1910s and 1920s. Like her English contemporary Elinor Glyn, Atherton specialized in erotic stories that charted the changing social and sexual mores of the twentieth century through narratives of female daring. Although Atherton's Black Oxen was the great bestseller of 1923—significantly more popular upon its publication than was Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, which appeared a year earlier—the film version of Black Oxen is now remembered only for an early performance by Clara Bow as a flapper.2

Bow's charms as flapper notwithstanding, the narratives of both the novel and the film of Black Oxen focus instead upon a mature woman's choice between sexual satisfaction and political power. In this article I hope to restore some of the missing context for the interpretation of those perdurable concerns of the 1920s and its historiography, namely the new emphasis placed upon youth and youth culture, new gender roles, and new patterns of eroticism. While we may imagine that the film industry in particular was interested in promoting the figure of the flapper in order to take advantage of its ability to package sensation and novelty attractively, films such as Black Oxen (Frank Lloyd, US, 1923) and the more familiar Dancing Mothers (Herbert Brenon, US, 1926) suggest that that there was in fact plenty of [End Page 59] scope for the sympathetic representation of a mature woman who might turn a second chance at youthfulness into a purpose beyond sexual gratification. As I argue below, such representations do not necessarily collapse mature women into would-be flappers when viewed within this context, although our need to organize the "flapper film" as a cycle with a reasonable structure and length has fostered a tendency to amalgamate these representations into the flapper film.

Because Black Oxen is not well known and the film does not currently exist in a complete version, readers may benefit from both a little context and a brief summary.3 Black Oxen tells the story of Mary Zattiany, a countess of Austria-Hungary, formerly Mary Ogden of the rather different aristocracy of pre-war New York, where she belonged to the elevated social set presided over by Mrs. Astor. At the conclusion of the First World War, Mary is a used up, exhausted woman of nearly sixty who agrees to undergo the Steinach Procedure, an actual therapy of the early 1920s promoted by Viennese physician Eugen Steinach. The procedure was designed to stimulate the patient's own hormonal secretions, although it would leave the subject sterile, involving as it did vasectomy for men and irradiation of the ovaries for women.4 One of the film's intertitles describes the procedure as "a method of rejuvenating the body through Xray [sic] processes perfected by a Viennese scientist Dr. Steinach. It is not uncommon. . ." Whether surgery or irradiation, the process was rapturously reported on in the American press in the early 1920s, and a film about the doctor and his discovery was released in Germany in February 1923, although Variety doubted that it would be permitted to circulate widely in the United States.5 Atherton herself sought the attentions of Steinach's American acolyte Dr. Harry Benjamin, an experience that appears to have inspired the novel, the completion of which marked Atherton's return to writing after a dry spell.6

In both novel and film, Mary's treatment cuts her apparent age in half, giving her a youthful body while permitting her to retain maturity of mind and feeling. She returns to New York to retrieve her American fortune in order to place it, and her newly rejuvenated self, at the disposal of Austria. During her sojourn in New York she attracts the admiration...


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