The following article is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the August 15-16 Anti-Damsel Blogathon, co-hosted by The Last Drive-In and Movies Silently. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.
If there was a scale for rating the on-screen “naughtiness” of silent actresses, virginal heroines such as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish would have to start the rankings at a 1 or 2, while pleasure-seeking gals Clara Bow and Joan Crawford would dance their way to say a 6, and coming in at 10 would be fallen women and femme fatales Louise Brooks and Theda Bara. Falling somewhere right down the middle–not too brazen, but definitely not the wallflower type–was one of early Hollywood’s first stars and first real-life casualties, former Ziegfeld Girl Olive Thomas.
Mostly forgotten today–except, unfortunately, for the tragic circumstances surrounding her death–the dark-haired, doe-eyed Thomas was born in a small industrial town near Pittsburgh in 1894. After a brief stint as a local shop girl and a doomed teen marriage, she moved to New York in 1914. The 20-year-old won a contest as “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” and became an in-demand magazine cover girl and illustrator’s model. In fact, a topless painting of her done by famed pin-up artist Alberto Vargas makes Thomas the first “Vargas Girl.”
Joining the cast of Broadway’s Ziegfeld Follies in 1915, Olive was also part of the more risqué Midnight Frolics shows that were staged after hours (usually on the roof of Manhattan’s New Amsterdam Theater) for well-to-do male patrons. While her looks helped her win over many a Frolics attendee’s heart, she was romantically attached to impresario Flo Ziegfeld for several years…until it became clear to her that the showman wasn’t willing to divorce wife Billie Burke for her.
A movie contract came her way in 1916, and over the next four years Olive would appear in more than 20 silent films, working her way up to star status. Along with the farmer’s daughters and other long-suffering “good girl” characters in the Mary Pickford vein (coincidentally, by this time she had married again, to none other than Mary’s younger brother, actor Jack Pickford), Thomas was also adept at playing contemporary young ladies with minds of their own. Nowhere was this persona more evident than in what would turn out to be one of Olive’s final performances, the title role in director Alan Crosland’s 1920 comedy/drama The Flapper.
The story opens in the sleepy community of Orange Springs, Florida, which “didn’t even have a saloon to close” and where going to the local soda fountain with a boy will cause a girl to be talked about. When senator’s daughter Genevieve King (Thomas) does just that with her neighbor Bill Forbes (Theodore Westman, Jr.) before he goes away to military academy, her irate father ships the 16-year-old off to an upper New York State boarding school–run by a very strict headmistress named, of course, Mrs. Paddles–in hopes of keeping her on the straight and narrow.
Genevieve’s new classmates, however, pay less attention to their studies than they do to trying out make up and silk stockings (I love the title card accompanying a shot of their legs which reads “Limbs of Satan from old family trees”) and watching the handsome older man (W.P. Carleton) who rides past the school on horseback every day. The girls also have their eyes trained on the boys at the adjoining military school as they take turns showing off at winter sports, a school which–as fate would have it–just happens to be where Genevieve’s Florida friend Bill is. As she tends to him following an ice-skating mishap, Mrs. Paddles comes by and gives her a severe dress-down. Naturally, this earns the girl the respect of her peers and the new nickname “Ginger.”
Sneaking out later for a horse-drawn sleigh ride with Bill, Ginger gets thrown into a snowbank thanks to Bill’s lack of equestrian expertise. As Bill goes chasing after his runaway steed, who should arrive in his own sleigh but the mysterious older gentleman, Richard Channing by name, who offers Ginger a ride. She tells him that she’s merely a guest at the school and is “about twenty,” and the smitten teen eagerly accepts when he invites her to dance that night at his country club. As her jealous classmates help her prepare for the big date (taking lace off a party dress to reveal a little décolletage), a delivery of flowers addressed “to the belle of the ball” makes Ginger swoon with–as a title card puts it–“heart trouble.” I just want to mention here how delightful Thomas is in these scenes, convincingly playing a flirtatious teenager who jokes with the girls about her “many lovers” and plays at being sophisticated.
At the country club (where, interestingly, an all-black jazz band is supplying the music), a very glamorous Ginger is having the time of her life chatting with the male guests and stepping out on the dance floor with Richard, until who should up but the stern Mrs. Paddles. It seems that one of Ginger’s fellow students, Hortense (Katherine Johnston), snitched on her: not out of spite, mind you, but so that she could use the headmistress’s absence to rob the safe in her office and run off with her criminal beau Thomas (Arthur Houseman).
Unaware of the robbery taking place while she’s gone, an irate Mrs. Paddles is ready to fetch home the embarrassed Ginger (who is seen peering out from behind Richard’s back, hoping that her teacher won’t see her). Making matters worse, when Ginger has to retrieve her fan from the ballroom, she hears her would-be Romeo calling her “a kid of that sap-headed, pin-feathered age.” As mortified as she is, Ginger does take a moment before leaving the country club to kiss the nose of a stuffed moose head, which winks at her (!) in return, on the wall.
Later, on her way home for vacation, Ginger is intercepted in New York by Hortense and Thomas, who coerce her at gunpoint to take the suitcases with stolen jewels and other items back to with her so they can pick them up later. Ginger, however, has her own plans for the jewelry and gowns she’s now in possession of; She’ll return to Orange Springs and pass herself off as a sophisticated and “experienced” woman of the world to her family and friends–as well as her one-time dancing partner Mr. Channing, who’s traveling south with a gaggle of his society acquaintances. She also pays a New York hotel bellhop to mail love letters Thomas wrote to Hortense to her Florida home, to give credence to her new “wicked” reputation. Naturally, her ruse makes her father irate and winds up bringing some Big Apple cops who think she was involved in the boarding school thefts, until the real crooks are captured, everything is set to right, and a wiser-for-the-experience Ginger is seen happily sipping sodas with Bill once more.
Nowadays, we tend to associate the term “flapper” with the bob-haired, short-skirted, Charleston-dancing women played by Clara Bow and others and featured in everything from Some Like It Hot to Boardwalk Empire, but pioneering female screenwriter Francis Marion’s story here was the first to use the term to describe the sort of free-spirited, more independent woman who was becoming more visible in American society in the years following World War I. The Flapper is a brisk little comedy propelled by the magnetic screen presence of Olive Thomas. Twenty-four years old when the picture was shot, the actress is totally convincing in the look and mannerisms of a 16-year-old as well as a 16-year-old pretending to be an adult (in a scene she tells the family maid about the “double life” she’s been living in Manhattan’s demimonde, Thomas turns her head away because she can’t keep from giggling over the game she’s playing).
Sadly, Olive would only appear in two more films after The Flapper. In late August of 1920 she and husband Jack Pickford took a long-delayed vacation to Paris in hopes of shoring up their rocky marriage. Returning to their hotel room after partying at clubs in the city’s Montparnasse neighborhood on the evening of September 5, a tipsy Thomas consumed a flask containing mercury bichloride, a highly toxic chemical which at the time was prescribed to Jack as a treatment for syphilis. According to Pickford, she screamed “My God, I’ve been poisoned!” and was eventually taken to the hospital, where the 25-year-old actress passed away five days later. Olive’s death, one of the first of a well-known Hollywood star, was for many years after the subjection of tabloid gossip and speculation, with rumors of infidelity, venereal disease, suicide and even deliberate poisoning running rampant (hers is the first Tinseltown scandal discussed in Kenneth Anger’s seminal book Hollywood Babylon). Pickford himself would also die in Paris, in 1933, from a progressive nerve disease made worse by years of alcoholism.
While the truth behind her passing may never be known, the undeniable talent and beauty of Olive Thomas live on in an all-too-brief body of work that new generations of film fans would do well to seek out. Only The Flapper and Beatrice Fairfax, a 1916 serial in which she had a small role, are currently available on home video, but anyone interested should also look for a 2003 documentary, Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart (the title coming from her posthumous final film). And if you want to meet Thomas herself, it’s long been said that her ghost trods the boards of the New Amsterdam Theater, still standing on 42nd Street and now owned by Disney.