Is This 1929 or 2015? 5 Reasons Why Be Good? Feels Like It Could Have Been Made Today
June 29, 2015
Obviously, it was not, but when I saw the movie, I had my suspicions.
The first time I watched Why Be Good? (original title: That's a Bad Girl) was at the 6th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival this year. Immediately after reviewing the schedule, this film made my must-see list for several reasons: 1. the film was thought lost for decades and only recently made available, 2. it was made in 1929 (you know what that means: PRE-CODE!) and 3. it's a sound/silent hybrid (no spoken dialogue but synced soundtrack and sound effects).
The screening earned raucous applause in several scenes, mostly from the women in the audience, and I was floored by the time I walked out. I kept thinking to myself: Were those titles cards written in 2015? Perhaps they were simply edited in to the movie? Could that happen? It certainly seemed like it to me; that's how modern many sequences felt and how closely I identified with several scenes as a young woman myself, which, I'll admit, is rather rare for me when watching classic films.
I'll get to the five points in a moment, but first: a synopsis. It's a little lengthy, but it will come in handy later.
Love the tagline: "She won him with her pep - but almost lost him with her rep."
Winthrop Peabody Jr. (Neil Hamilton) attends a going away party in his honor- going away to work, that is - in his father (Edward Martindel)'s department store.
Meanwhile, Pert Kelly (Colleen Moore), a flapper who hides her heart of gold, dances five billion frames per second in a Charleston contest. She catches the eye of smooth talking Jimmy (Louis Natheaux) and dances with him as Winthrop enters. Though Winthrop and Pert adorably trade glances every turn she gets, Pert and Jimmy soon leave the dance floor and sit down. Jimmy quickly turns amorous and luckily passes out, opening the door for Pert and Winthrop to put names to those cute faces.
Pert (Colleen Moore) sure seems into Jimmy (Louis Natheaux) at first...
Pert agrees to let Winthrop take her home, but before they leave they sit down and get to know each other. Surprisingly, Pert wastes no time in making the first move, and though he's hesitant at first, Winthrop kisses her back.
Winthrop drops Pert off and sets a date with her for the next evening. Though Pert called to tell her parents she would be home late, her father Pa (John St. Polis) angrily tells her she's "headed straight for perdition!" (OK, we're definitely in 1929 here).
Pert clocks in late to work the next morning, which earns her a trip to the personnel department. There, she comes face to face with Winthrop, his first day on the job! Already fed up after two very flirty females tried to take advantage of him, Winthrop declares that he's firing Pert, mainly because his father just walked in. After Pert leaves, Winthrop's father tells his son that's not the way to handle things, but when he finds out Pert's the girl Winthrop kept out until 3am, he approves Pert's firing unbeknownst to his son.
Winthrop (Neil Hamilton) almost getting into trouble his first day on the job. He learns quickly that his female employees can be quite coquettish, to say the least.
After Pert finds her pink slip, she assumes Winthrop was behind it and stands him up. Winthrop has no clue why Pert bailed, but after hearing her story, he promises to make things right and get her job back. Pert refuses his help; even when he tries to give her money instead, she turns him down.
Pert happily confides to her Ma (Bodil Rosing) that Winthrop wasn't the one to fire her; in fact, he even offered her money for his father's wrongdoing! Instantly, her mother's face sinks. Ma's wondering if a "rich man has the right idea about a working girl."
Pert's Ma (Bodil Rosing) with a look that most sons and daughters have probably seen before.
Winthrop confronts his father about Pert. When he asks his son if he'd marry her, Winthrop enthusiastically answers yes. Great, but his father warns him that if Pert falls for him, she'll fall for someone else. Is he really sure she's a good girl?
Well, Winthrop's way of assuring his father that she's good - he thinks - is by taking Pert to the Stumble Inn. Pert plays it cool, even casually mentioning that she's been there before, until Winthrop shows her the bedroom. Uh oh. Pert fires back and reams Winthrop with a terrific speech: of course she's never been there, she's done everything he's asked, and she's always been honest with him. Winthrop stops her as she tries to leave, assuring her that he's never doubted her.
Though the situation looked rocky at the time, Pert and Winthrop must have made up pretty quickly, because the next we see them, they're dancing in their pajamas to loud music in Winthrop's father's home. The music wakes a stunned Winthrop Sr. up, but don't worry, father, it's a celebration: they're married!
Who cares what time it is! Late night dancing is always a fun way to start married life together.
This radiant, yet remarkably nuanced interpretation of young men and women navigating relationships, sex, and social mores owes its success in large part to magnificent direction from William A. Seiter, strong writing by Carey Wilson and the acting talents of Colleen Moore, all of which I'll touch upon later. Though Neil Hamilton turns in a solid performance, if you've seen the movie, you know he isn't given too much to do; this is definitely Moore's show. I haven't watched many of Moore's films, but she is simply charming here. She's fun, tough, level-headed (for the most part), and refreshingly relatable and modern, even though the film dates back over 80 years.
So why was I unsure whether the entire cast and crew of Why Be Good? entered a time machine to the future during the making this movie? Well...
1. Why Be Good? : An indie rom-com?
Of all the silent films I've seen (not many, but a semi-respectable amount), none have moved me or hit home as hard as Why Be Good? Though the picture was a standard release back in 1929, the trials, tribulations, highs and lows of young love, highlighted in the film's quieter, minute moments, have the feel of a modern day independent film. Why do I say that? For one, the lack of spoken dialogue and the resulting silence actually adds sweetness and validity to Moore and Hamilton's feelings in a number of scenes; in these moments, the audience focuses more on the visuals and those little actions that speak volumes louder than words ever could.
Adorable. No words needed.
Though without spoken dialogue, silent films generally steered audiences to pay more attention to the action on screen by default, Seiter's direction and the cinematography by Sidney Hickox focused in on the main character's feelings in an intimate way that seems very contemporary; I see this same attempt to capture life and meaning through supposedly mundane or insignificant flashes of time and actions, often expressed without words, in many modern indie films.
In addition to Seiter and Hickox's contributions, Moore and the delightfully baby faced Hamilton's acting, especially their expressions and small gestures, contribute greatly to this contemporary independent quality. 1929 reviewer Mae Tinee singled out Moore in particular when she noted that the film gave her "considerable opportunity to show what she can do, emotionally, dramatically, and comically" (237). This statement rings quite true; in fact, Moore's Pert gets a handful of solo scenes where she plays herself - no facades, no trying to be the bad girl, just a young woman in love who happens to harbor some very strong emotions.
Two sequences in particular highlight the ups and downs of Pert's feelings in quietly sweet yet comic ways. The first comes when she rests her head on a store mannequin, pretending it's Winthrop. Pert delicately dallies with the mannequin childishly, all in her own private world...in the middle of a department store...on the clock. Contrary to the good-time gal who comes out at night, this more realistic version of Pert sheepishly finds herself caught up in the memories in her head during a slow day on the job.
The second example occurs when Pert playfully draws Winthrop's silhouette on a door with lipstick while waiting for him one night after work, pre-official firing. Pert's demeanor, and Winthrop's portrait, change drastically after she reaches into her purse and finds her pink slip. Just as quickly as her crude portrait went up, she angrily adds a pair of rabbit ears/floppy devil horns when she thinks he's the one who fired her. In both scenes, Pert displays her feelings in ways she never would show in public; after all, these are private moments that normally wouldn't be caught on camera, except for the fact that this is a movie.
Playful Pert can turn into pissed off Pert real fast...
In Hamilton/Winthrop's corner, his sincere reactions to Pert's accusations of his character throughout the picture, particularly when he tells her he wasn't the one who fired her, capture the sadness and exasperation he's feeling. Despite all that, he's amazingly quite down to go with the flow, even with this young woman who seems to change her mind every other second.
In all of these sequences, Seiter and Hickox give their actors ample time with the scene - probably more than is necessary - to let the effect of their actions sink in with the viewer. This tendency shows great patience and care for the characters, which again is a trait I usually see in present-day indies.
Side note: I wonder why the studio decided against spoken dialogue (which was very much in use by 1929). I also wonder how the full inclusion of sound would have changed the picture, if at all.