Review: Why Be Good?

This past weekend, I attended a screening of the silent film Why Be Good? (1929) starring the amazing Colleen Moore as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. As readers of my blog know, I’m a big fan of silent films and I try to see as many of them as I can on the big screen. This film was well worth checking out.

Before the movie started, there was a conversation between David Robinson, biographer of Chaplin, and Michael Kutza, CIFF Founder, talked about Colleen Moore and her films. Michale Kutza and David Robinson theorize that the only reason we don’t know her as well as Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, or Buster Keaton is because her films didn’t last. Most of her films were lost, despite her own efforts. She had preserved her films by obtaining copies of them, and handed them all over to the MOMA many years ago. However, she discovered years later that many of her films had mostly disappeared from MOMA. There are theories on what happened to them but no one knows for sure. What a tragedy! This incident points to the importance of initiatives like WITASWAN (Women in the Audience supporting women artists now) that try to support the work of women in art. Here is another sad instance of a woman’s work lost due to indifference and perceived unimportance!

In this conversation, Michael Kutza talked about the influence that Colleen Moore had on the Chicago International Film Festival. She lived in Chicago towards the end of her life. She sort of served as a mentor for him, giving him advice and using her network of stars to help build the festival. So it was really neat that for the 50 anniversary, they could screen a film of hers.

A copy of her last silent film Why Be Good? was found. This screening was the North American premiere of the film, since it first came out in the 1920s. What a fun film! Spoilers ahead. Colleen Moore plays the quintessential flapper who meets a Rockefeller and they fall for each other. It’s a fun look at the jazz and flapper scene in the 1920s. She is such a joy to watch.

It was interesting to see how gender roles and expectations played out in the film. The film centers on Colleen Moore’s character, a working girl who enjoys the nightlife. She meets a Rockefeller who falls for her but is wary of her outrageous nature. Also he’s her boss. So there is some drama over that but ultimately he’s not sure if she is a “good girl.” At one point, Colleen Moore’s character, Pert, tells her mother, “I’m a good girl but I can’t let anyone find out.” In this film, a good girl is a woman who doesn’t have sex before marriage. It turns out all right because Pert was a good girl so all can live happily ever after.

I know that the film was trying to address how the flapper age brought a redefinition of women’s roles. Suddenly, there were women going out, drinking, even smoking, and behaving more aggressively than before. There are films from this era about fallen flapper women trying to seduce good boys; these flappers come to bad ends. This film along with Dancing Daughters tried to show that flappers could be good people to. However, it’s within a limited view of female behavior. In Dancing Daughters, one of Joan Crawford’s friends had sex before marriage with another man and the movie suggests that she is going to be dealing with that mistake for the rest of her life with her jealous husband. Never mind that it happened before she met her husband. And then the main plot centers around the male lead’s wariness of Joan Crawford’s outward behavior. Both movies show that outward appearances shouldn’t be taken for granted. Here’s a good flapper and a good boy. Now, it seems so limiting.

 

Anyway, Why Be Good? is still worth watching. I hope they find more of her films. That’s all for now!

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