Well, if this isn’t the cat’s meow! Let’s get a load of one of the classic flapper flicks of the Roaring Twenties, assumed lost for many years, but happily rediscovered, shined up, and put on DVD at long last. It’s Why Be Good? starring Colleen Moore, released at the very end of the Jazz Age. Did I was!
Moore is the cutely-named Pert Kelly, hardworking shop girl by day and Charleston-dancing jazz baby by night. She’s an adorable ball of energy who knows just how to flirt her way into popular nightclubs–even if it means having to put up with a self-absorbed greaser or two.
In spite of this simply outrageous Thoroughly Modern Millie behavior, Pert’s still a “good girl,” only looking to have some fun. She also still lives at home with mom and dad (which doesn’t seem unusual to me in that time period, but everyone who writes about this film keeps mentioning it, so…there it is).
Her stern, “old-fashioned” father has a hard time trusting his strong-willed daughter, but her mother is more sympathetic–although a little worried all the same. “Sure I’m good, Mom,” Pert insists, “but I have an awful time hiding it. I’d be disgraced if it were ever found out!”
While at a club called The Boiler with a cologne-drenched bore (parts of these scenes were censored, but you can briefly see a shot of two dancers turning on a spit as part of the artsy decor!), Pert spots Winthrop Peabody Jr. (Neil Hamilton), the polished son of a department store owner. She likes what she sees. So does he.
Once Mr. Cologne considerately passes out from too much hooch Pert sidles up to Winthrop. They hit it off. He gallantly drives her home from the club late that night, and they say their goodbyes (with cutely acted hints of longing!).
Due to all this partying, Pert is late to work at the store the next morning. Unfortunately, it’s the first day her new boss is going to be there. Most unfortunately, her new boss happens to be Winthrop.
This, of course, causes a series of complications and misunderstandings to unfold, not the least of which is Winthrop’s father suspecting that Pert is less than pure and just trying to bag a wealthy husband. Ain’t that the berries!
This sleekly-produced comedy was Colleen Moore’s answer to the popular Clara Bow’s flapper flicks. It’s deliciously Twenties, the kind of film you could introduce to anyone who has even a passing interest in the era. To prove it, here’s the Jazz Age Flapper Flick Checklist:
- Sleekly bobbed hair
- Jazz music
- Charleston contest
- Latest flapper frocks
- Art Deco
- Slang galore
- Jazz clubs
- Hooch flask
- Slicked-back hair
- Partying until 3 a.m.
- Shiny cars
- Clash between the older generation and the new
- Vivacious flapper heroine who works as a shop girl…
- …Who is still a wholesome girl at heart so everyone can root for her
Let’s see here…hmm…aaaand Why Be Good? checks off every item three whole times!! I’m going to move it into the “Essential Viewing” folder.
Why Be Good? is not only fun, but a good film to use to illustrate flapper culture. It’s very self-conscious in its own way. It knows exactly what the public’s idea of a flapper was, and how the idea of a flapper was being discussed at that changing time. Moore includes all the clichés but finds something deeper too. Sure, there’s the flapper’s love of excitement and a good time, but under all that confetti and fringe there’s a girl’s fundamental desire to still be respected by men as well as loved. Pert’s speech about double standards toward the end minces no words:
Moore’s Pert, like many of her characters, is the kind of flapper anyone could root for. She’s spunky and adores having a good time with her various beaus, but to the relief of old-fashioned fathers everywhere she never takes a good time too far. You could say, in a bored cynical manner, that this was just to keep censors off Moore’s back. Well, sure. I guess. But hey, can’t a girl just have some innocently outrageous fun? Especially when it involves her cleverly pulling the wool over the eyes of the more cocky guys? Love ya, Pert.
I had the pleasure of seeing Why Be Good? at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year. Two of my friends joined me for that particular showing. Neither of them were very familiar with silent films, but they loved it. If that’s not a good recommendation for this movie, I don’t know what is.
The DVD is available from the Warner Archive collection here. Or you can try Amazon.