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Silent Women and The Plastic Age

In January 2012 Frederica Sagor-Maas died.  You might not remember or even know her name, yet she was a screenwriter, playwright and author who surpassed all of her contemporaries to live to the ripe old age of 112. 

Sagor-Maas was the daughter of Russian immigrants to America.  She rose to prominence during the early 1920s when she left her position at Universal Pictures to go to Hollywood where she took on the challenge of adapting a novel called “The Plastic Age” by Percy Marks.  This adaptation was turned into a hugely successful film starring the darling of the cinema at the time - Clara Bow. 

The Plastic Age 

“The Plastic Age” was a notable film for many reasons.  First, it was adapted by a woman.  Second, the main thrust of the film was celebrating the age of flapperdom.  A decade of free living, drinking, dancing, new fashions, hairstyles and so on.  The 1920s were the first real decade of freedom for women in all walks of life, and thus the cinema had to reflect this notion.

File:Mary Pickford on Beach with Camera, ca. 1916 (LOC).jpg
Mary Pickford
Actresses like Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo seeped into the consciousness of the young women who were seeing them on the screen for the first time at the Flickers and Nickleodeons.  Their penchants for short skirts (very often high above the knee), dark, heavy make up and short hair cuts became a watchword in style for youngsters who wanted a taste of this life.  Practically speaking, the bob haircut was nothing new – said to have been “invented” by the likes of Colleen Moore, it was actually a practical measure that seeped into being during the latter stages of World War One when more women in general were going into the workplace and needed to keep their hair short to prevent accidents, particularly in manual jobs in munitions factories.  

The films of this era tended to reflect this trend and one of the more (as was seen at the time) positive aspects of the films was the trend for more women to go into varying fields of work, to earn their own money and become much more independent.  One particular film of the era “Bertha the Sewing Machine Girl” starring Madge Bellamy was a good proponent of this ideal.  In it, the main character Bertha is seen to work her way from the humble ranks of the sewing room to a successful fashion designer, showing that women could really follow their dreams if they so desired. 

The Rise of the Female Film Figure

However, the 1920s weren’t just a pivotal time for women as actresses.  It was one of the few decades in which women had prominence at every stage of the film making process – not just purely taking on decorative starring roles. 

Names we still hear today, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, Marie Dressler, Norma Talmadge will bring a nod of recognition.  People can maybe name films they starred in, but little realise that as well as being talented performers in their own right were powerfully shrewd businesswomen with a keen eye for how films should be written, produced and directed as well:

Mary Pickford, for example was one of twenty women who owned their own film production companies and was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  She co-owned United Artists with her then husband Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin.

Indeed, the actress Mabel Normand, whose life was tragically cut short by Tuberculosis at the very young age of 37 was just as noted for her directorial abilities as much as her acting.  She spent much of her early career helping to produce and direct the films of Charlie Chaplin when he was just starting to form and shape his “Little Tramp” character. 

Marie Dressler, probably the least well known from that list earns a mention here because of her work as President of the Chorus Equity Association in the early years of the decade a tireless campaigner who ended up blacklisted by many theatre companies because of her strong views and stances on issues pertaining to the rights of Actors.  Dressler was a striking presence in films while never being a strong beauty as the likes of Bow, Louise Brooks and Theda Bara were, she still managed to carve out a steady career. 

Colleen Moore: something different

An interesting juxtaposition comes in the shape of Colleen Moore.  Moore was one of the first Flappers On Film in movies such as “Ella Cinders”, “Painted People” and “The Perfect Flapper”.  An expert comedienne, she revealed a delicate touch for humour combined with a deft doe eyed emotional side.  Moore, in interviews liked to present herself as a home girl at heart, with only the interests of her husband in mind when she wasn’t on the film set.  She was in essence a restrained flapper – one who took on the looks, fashions and styles but wouldn’t break all the rules entirely.  However, this view of her put forward in interviews and magazines was a carefully constructed plot.  Moore was every inch the shrewd businesswoman.  Often on the film set for eighteen hours or more a day, she rarely had time for anything other than making movies – and she certainly didn’t have time to be the good housewife she made out she was.   

These women, in the early decades of the twentieth century were fighting against the repression and chains of a staid and overtly moral society that had held them in check for many years.  The emergence of flapper culture both in real life and celluloid presented a chance for women to show that they had the intelligence, talent and the guts to go forth into the world and make a difference.  Their contributions, whether as actresses, directors, producers or writers paved the way for women in all walks of life all over the world to believe they too could make a difference. 

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