Thursday, October 8, 2009

Colleen bobs her hair

The cover of the May 1920 issue of Saturday Evening Post
in which Fitzgerald's short story first was published

When F. Scott Fitzgerald published his short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair in the May 1920 issue of Saturday Evening Post, little did he know about the stir it would provoke. Up until this time, long, glorious, pampered hair was a key component of traditional feminine beauty. The idea of bobbed hair, which came into style after the first world war was considered scandalous and, as Bernice herself jokingly comments in the short story, even "unmoral". The fact that a simple hair cut could so upset an entire town may seem ludicrous to us now, but if we consider it in the context of the changing social period Fitzgerald lived in, it makes more sense. Long hair represented both a woman's beauty and her virtue – and bobbing one's hair simply wasn't seen as something a respectable, well-bred girl would do.

Enter the flapper. I will not turn this post into a feminist manifesto but some events were crucial for the flapper to appear like Phenix from the flames. The first world war forced the women out of the house and into society. With the right to vote - the modern woman was born. Suddenly women had an independency they never had experienced before. With this independence also came the desire to express their personalities in a new way. The women freed themselves from bustles and corsets, cumbersome attire which in many ways had been a prison sentence of about 500 years for all womanhood. Skirts went up, knees were shown and the long glorious hair was cut off.

A flapper gets a haircut.
Illustration by John Held j:r (Life Magazine, 1926)

The first actress who adopted the new style on a broad scale was Colleen Moore. She was born Kathleen Morrison 1900 (some sources say 1902) in Port Huron, Michigan. Her family later moved to Florida and that's where she grew up. The family summered in Chicago, where young Kathleen nourished her acting dreams in the company of her Aunt Lib (Elizabeth, who perhaps inspired by the times had changed her name to "Liberty" Lib for short) and her uncle Walter Howey. Howey was an important newspaper editor in the publishing empire of William Randolph Hearst, and he was the inspiration for Walter Burns, the fictional Chicago newspaper editor in the play and the 1931 Lewis Milestone film The Front Page.

Somehow uncle Walter knew D.W. Griffith and Aunt Lib had him arrange a meeting with Kathleen who had decided she wanted to go Hollywood at age 15. Griffith agreed to a screen test to see if her eyes (one brown, one blue) would photograph close enough in darkness as not to be a distraction. Her eyes passed the test, and so she left for Hollywood with her grandmother as chaperon and her mother along as well. Her name was changed to Colleen Moore and she debuted as such in The Bad Boy in 1917. Colleen was a smart girl and slowly moved up in the budding studio system. She proved to have great comic timing and got gradually bigger and better parts. Her big break came in First National's Flaming Youth (1923).

The poster for Flaming Youth (1923)

In Flaming Youth Colleen plays a vivacious flapper and had to cut her hair short to fit with the image. The idea for how it should be carried out is almost too simple to be true. In her autobiography Silent Star, published in 1968 Colleen tells us all about it. Her mother had a Japanese doll which she loved dearly and simply suggested that Colleen cut her hair to resemble it for the role as the flapper. Colleen agreed and the result is history.

Colleen Moore 1927

Flaming Youth made both Colleen Moore and her haircut overnight superstars. As important a film Flaming Youth was for the Jazz Age, as sad is the loss of it for us today. Only one reel of it is reported to exist in a vault somewhere.

Colleen Moore is one of those screen legends that is almost totally forgotten today because most of her movies are lost. Of her about 60 movies we only have a little more than a handful left to enjoy. One of them is Ella Cinders from 1926, a wonderful "modern day" Cinderella tale where Colleen makes good use of her comic talent and striking looks. Here's a clip from it. Please enjoy Collen Moore at the height of her career:

The bobbed Japanese doll haircut soon became synonymous with the flapper image and was copied by girls all over the world. One actress who took this hairstyle to another level was of course Louise Brooks, who used it to charge her appearence with allure and enigma. But she didn't bob her hair until 1926.

Louise Brooks 1929

Both Colleen Moore and Louise Brooks left their incredibly successful silent movie careers around 1930. Colleen made her last film as Hester Prynne in a poverty row production of The Scarlet Letter in 1934. She married a stock broker and learned how to invest her fortune. At the height of her fame, Moore was earning $12,500 per week. She was an astute investor, and through her investments remained wealthy for the rest of her life. Throughout her life she had a fascination for dolls (probably also their haircuts). Over the years, starting in her childhood she spent a fortune on a gigantic dollhouse, a fairy castle which still can be visited at The Museum Of Science and Industry in Chicago. In the 1960's she ran a television production company together with King Vidor. In her later years she would frequently attend film festivals, and was a popular interview subject always willing to discuss her Hollywood career. She was a participant in the 1980 documentary film series Hollywood, providing her recollections of Hollywood's silent film era. Colleen Moore left us in 1988, probably aged 87.

Louise Brooks hit the silver screen for the last time in 1938 with the forgettable western Overland Stage Riders. Contrary to popular rumor, this was not intended to be her "comeback" to Hollywood, she made it simply because she needed the money. She then opened a dance studio in Beverly Hills. It failed because of a financial scandal involving her business partner. In 1940, Brooks boarded a train back to Kansas, leaving Hollywood for good. She opened a dance studio in Wichita and wrote a book, "The Fundamentals of Good Ballroom Dancing". She later became a quite successful writer and painter. Louise Brooks left us in 1985, aged 78.

Let's end with a citation from the writer who started it all:

"I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble"
- F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The title picture of this blog is a poster for the 1927 movie Twinkletoes starring Colleen Moore.


Terence Towles Canote said...

It is a shame that Colleen Moore has been forgotten today. I think she could well be ripe for rediscovery! Of course, when it came to the two most famous actresses with bobs, I have to say I always preferred Louise Brooks. Not only was she more beautiful in my opinion, but it seems to me her bob was perfect.

Anonymous said...

wow, I learned so much in this post!! I can't believe that dollhouse!! And that Colleen Moore's uncle was the inspiration for the Walter Burns character?! Her eyes?!

I really wish more of her movies were available, I'd love to see them! I'd especially be interested in seeing Flaming Youth, now!

Lolita of the Classics said...

This was a fantastic post! A lot of things I didn't know, and all about my favorite subject - flappers. It was Bernice Bobs Her Hair that made me fall in love with Fitzgerald, it was the first short story of his that I read.
Again: Great post!

Lolita of the Classics said...

That film clip was lovely too - I loved the photograph scene! What a frustrating fly! Haha.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Great post, Jonas. I like how you worked in F. Scott Fitzgerald. It's a shame so many of Moore's films have been lost. Thanks for the charming clip of "Ella Cinders." Terrific commedienne.

Flapper Flickers + Silent Stanzas said...

Wonderful post! One thing, though - while Colleen Moore may have been the first to make the "Dutch bob" popular, Louise Brooks actually wore her hair most of her life that way. I have childhood pictures of her with the bob already in place. ^_^

Unknown said...

Great post! I love Colleen Moore. It makes me so mad that more of her films aren't available:(

Anonymous said...

I just hope there are, by some miracle, "lost" silent movie nitrates that will emerge someday from hidden collections.

Caitlin said...

It's interesting how something as seemingly frivolous as a hairstyle could be such a cause for scandal. Great post, Jonas!

KING OF JAZZ said...

Hmmmm..."Anonymous" above is me, KING OF JAZZ.

Anyway, my comments still stand!

Hey, don't forget, there's a Wheeler & Woolsey marathon on TCM next Tuesday!

king of jazz said...'s WEDNESDAY night
(10/14) on TCM as per Wheeler & Woolsey.

Tom said...

Great post! Every time I go to the MSI, I always make a point to stop at Colleen Moore's fairy castle, simply amazing.

Jonas Nordin said...

Thank you all for your nice comments!
I think the reason why Colleen is largely forgotten is the fact that so few of her films has survived. There is hope though as both Why Be Good and Synthetic Sin, her two last silents from 1929 has been found recently and is undergoing restoration at this moment. Yay!

KING OF JAZZ said...

Wow--how were these silents rediscovered? A collector's contribution? A dusty vault? I'm always fascinated how these previously lost films reappear.

Raquel Stecher said...

Professor Jonas. I was remiss to post a comment even though I have already waxed poetic about how wonderful this post was. Truly a wonderful study on culture and 1920s and movies and Colleen Moore! Thanks for breaking down another myth.

Just so happens I'm reading Flappers and Philosophers! Can't wait to get to Bernice Bobs Her Hair.

Anonymous said...

I sure wish that SYNTHETIC SIN (1928) and WHY BE GOOD? (1929) were both being restored as we speak, but as far as I know they are still stuck in a vault in Europe and are Nitrate only. No Safety-film transfers have been struck yet. Very discouraging. I hope Warner's get's to these before it is to late to save them. Already the project has been postponed each year since 2006. HER WILD OAT (1927) at least has been restored, and maybe LILAC TIME (1928) too. Hopefully, these films will pop up on TCM in the coming year.

Anonymous said...

True story:I had that "do" back in the "Charleston Days". It was called the "boot head" -allegedly because an unfortunate lady got hers after a stint with a seedy horse. So whenever I 'charlestoned' at the dance hall.I was ALWAYS greeted with jeers and leers as they called me "boot head". They really believed that I got the hairstyle because I was kicked in the head and had to have the hair removed to allow the scalp to heal. Also,people thought it changed my head's 'shape' like a boom-a rang. Thanks for bringing back the memories-even if some of them DO hurt.Laugh At Loude.Thunk you.

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