The One about Alan Crosland’s “The Flapper”

Chances are…that many people today have never heard of the silent actress Olive Thomas.  If anything, for most people who frequent the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City, her name is known as the ghost that is supposedly haunting the theatre.

Sure, there are many people today who are familiar with Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Norma Shearer, Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow and many female actresses of the era, but Olive Thomas seems to have been forgotten.  And perhaps its because many of her silent films are lost (many silent films are lost and unfortunately shot on combustible nitrate film which many have suffered massive acid deterioration or were destroyed in a fire caused by the nitrate film) and have not had the distribution like Pickford, Swanson and Bow.

But Olive Thomas was one of the most popular actresses at the time and earning the nickname “Everybody’s Sweetheart”.  Even rivaling Mary Pickford who was dubbed “America’s Sweetheart”.  Not only was she Florence Ziegfeld’s #1 go to lady for the Ziegfeld Follies but she was also a favorite of Hollywood’s most popular producers, the Selznick brothers.  Her beauty and girl-next-door looks captivated many that knew her and similar to a big star of today, she graced many magazine covers, was on many product advertisements, on film and to everyone’s surprised, Olive Thomas married her screen rival’s brother, Jack Pickford.

And unlike the silent film actresses I named earlier, Olive Thomas, who had a radiant life and career that was skyrocketing but in 1920, after a night of partying hard in France and hoping to strengthen her deteriorating marriage to Jack Pickford,  Olive Thomas was dead at the young age of 26.

Her death was reported as accidental as the actress supposedly woke up early in the morning to grab an aspirin but ended up grabbing Jack Pickford’s syphilis medication (mercury bichloride), which was supposed to be used topically but she put it into her drink and by then, the poison started to work in her body and within a few days she was dead.

Like many actresses and young socialites of today who fill the tabloid papers for their hard partying and worries that their lifestyles may lead to their premature death, Olive Thomas was the celebrity in which media took her death and shown to the public and warned them of hard partying, the Hollywood and France life.  But the intrigue and public mourning of Olive Thomas led to many theories of her death.  From accidental death, to suicide or even a case of murder which people blamed Pickford for Olive’s death.

Olive Thomas, known as “Everybody’s Sweetheart” was so loved by her fans and she was more popular than many of the young silent film actresses at the time and it’s unfortunate that many of her films are lost and that the legacy of this fine young actresses has not stood out compared to other contemporaries due to the fact that people today have had not much access to any of her films unless you attended a silent film festival.

As of today, around 12 of her films (many in bad shape) have been found but only one of her films “The Flapper” (1920) is available on DVD courtesy of Milestone Film & Video/Image Entertainment.

For those not familiar with the term “The Flapper”.  The word is meant to describe a new breed of young women in the ’20s who were defiant, independent and liberal.  Known for sporting short skirts, bobbed hair, makeup and were into American jazz culture, smoking, drinking and sex was discussed in a casual manner.   And the word was first used in the 1920 silent film which was written by popular screenwriter at the time, Frances Marion.

One night, I discovered Olive Thomas by mistake. I was going through various sites reading about Louise Brooks and more on the Flapper trend of the “Roaring Twenties” and when it came to women that people looked at being the quintessential Flapper, I noticed Olive Thomas listed. I asked myself, who is Olive Thomas? As I was familiar with the other women on the list except her.

As I started to do my research on Olive, I was shocked but what I found. Here is one of America’s top actresses, who worked hard and played hard and lived a short life. Married the brother of Mary Pickford (an actress that she did not want to be like) and created a career for herself and was loved and adored by many. I asked myself, “how can I not know Olive Thomas?” and it’s simple. Similar to how Harold Lloyd is not easily remembered because of his lack of film distribution on television for nearly 80 years, the same can be said about Olive Thomas but worst.

Where Harold Lloyd have creative control over his films and literally took great care of them and fortunately had sibling that would carry the torch for him and many to rediscover his work many decades later, the same can’t be said for Olive Thomas as her films are either lost and those that were found are in terrible shape. A few that have been screened at film festivals but nothing released on DVD but one film.

So, we have one film, “The Flapper” included in “The Olive Thomas Collection” and an awesome documentary detailing Olive’s career and personal life and bits and pieces of her work from other films and that is it.

“The Flapper” was a good film and I can imagine by Thomas playing this wild character in the film, in the ’20s – teenage girls probably loved it while conservative parents more than likely scoffed by such a character. But this film was a the kickoff to the flapper trend and has its place in American pop culture history.

But was “The Flapper” one her best films? I’m not sure if this question will ever be answered because of the lack of release of her films on the video market and there are many films that are lost. Obviously, from watching “Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart”, we learn how popular of an actress she was back then. We see clips of her playing a variety of roles and again, its rather unfortunate that these are not available, so people of today and audiences of tomorrow would know who she is aside from a ghost haunting the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York.

“The Flapper” was a good film that seemed a bit disjointed and farfetched at times. It’s hard to believe that she comes from this quaint but small upper class area in Florida, moves to a boarding house where it’s all snow and wherever she goes, the boy that likes her and the man she meets is there and also at home. There are some hilarious moments and also scenes that show us New York and its crowded streets ala early 1920, we get to see Olive Thomas playing the innocent school girl to becoming a wannabe vamp and also, we get to see Norma Shearer and her sister in one of their earlier roles as extras.

Overall, Olive Thomas may be one of the forgotten actresses from the silent era and a name that may not be recognized by people today but she was the actress who was known for working hard, playing hard. She was determined, passionate and wanted to be the best actress in Hollywood. Her career was ended before she could win any Academy Awards, lay a handprint or her signature on wet cement on Hollywood’s Walk-of-Fame and before her career could be ever, fully recognized.


 

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Dennis A. Amith