Is This 1929 or 2015? 5 Reasons Why Be Good? Feels Like It Could Have Been Made Today

June 29, 2015

2. Deciphering true meaning through non-verbal communication has never been easy

One thing the silence also adds to is Pert's confusing behavior at times. Think of it as trying to decipher the meaning behind a text message; though Why Be Good? had the added benefit of visuals, the lack of spoken dialogue and inflection in particular makes it harder to accurately have a handle on the situation. This verbal-visual disconnect is definitely a hot - and mostly hilarious - issue today with memes and websites devoted to text, email, and all forms of digital miscommunication; let's be real, who hasn't experienced that perplexity with a text, an IM, or a tweet?

 

Seiter certainly utilized the potential ambiguity silence can cause to his advantage for the character of Pert. It's obvious that Pert is meant to be a good girl who intentionally uses her feminine wiles at times to suit her needs and keep up with the cool crowd; this is one point quickly made apparent to the audience from the beginning but is intentionally withheld from her suitors. In fact, at one point Pert tells her mother: "Sure I'm good, Mom -- but I have an awful time hiding it. I'd be disgraced if it were ever found out!" Well, Winthrop uncovers the truth eventually, but it's not an easy task, because first he has to deal with some of Pert's conflicting signals. Sound familiar, ladies and gentlemen? How many teenage girls and boys have felt the same way over the decades? How many dramas (Lifetime, anyone?) have exploited the (usually) rocky path of female characters grappling with their image and morality? I'm sure they are plenty, for both questions.

 

Besides the ending, when Pert fires back at Winthrop for assuming she'd stay the night with him, the sequence in which Pert's conflicting vibes are most evident occurs when Pert talks to Winthrop for the first time after she's fired. Not knowing he's been stood up, Winthrop waits for Pert in his car outside her house. Though she just jumped in Jimmy's ride to presumably party her disappointment away, once she spots Winthrop she hops out of Jimmy's car, walks over to Winthrop...and then sweeps right past him back inside. Winthrop eventually gets her outside to talk, and at this point, Pert alternates between tough, cool, and nonchalant, really hoping for Winthrop to be the good guy she painted him to be...but of course not doing too much to show that.

 

The audience knows how Pert wants this little song and dance to pan out, which makes it funnier to watch her desperately try to maintain control of the situation while her actions simply exhaust Winthrop. At first she stubbornly refuses to get in his car, flipping her hair as casually/flirty as possible, keeping her distance clearly in a ploy to tempt him. She gives him a little hope when she hops in the car, but the moment Winthrop presses the gas, she flips. She wants to be in the car but not go anywhere. Got it? Then, to top it off, her visible stubbornness relaxes into a smile when she walks in her house to greet her mother. Mission: complete. (Is your head spinning yet? Winthrop's sure was).

Pert trying to play it cool and unaffected, while remaining as flirty as possible. To do this well is a gift, one that Colleen Moore certainly had.

Yes sir, Pert's got him right where she wants him: confused as hell but wanting more. That's not sending any mixed signals, right? I can imagine the title cards being re-done as screenshots from text messages. You'd have a modern rom-com right there!

 

 

3. The age old question: can a girl be good AND enjoy herself?

As Winthrop's father remarks: "Son, that girl has seen life and shows it." Does judging a woman by what she wears or how she dances sound familiar, 2015? As we've seen, Pert purposely manipulates her image when she's out with men; remember how she tells her Ma, "Sure I'm good, Mom -- but I have an awful time hiding it." Well, that's certainly a sentiment that could be backed up by a chorus of contemporary teenage girls and young women who grapple with those very same dilemmas.   

 

The way Pert juggles her identity is revealed in different ways through her interactions with Jimmy and Winthrop. Don't forget, the night she met Winthrop, Pert was actually on the arm of Jimmy, dancing with him while exchanging glances with her future husband. It's easy to tell right off the bat that Jimmy's a skeezeball, and while Pert played along with him, she rightfully refused to give in to his advances because she sensed what he was after. (And she was correct in that thinking, as Jimmy's friend later argued: "And I suppose you was after her beautiful soul!"). Luckily, though Pert still wanted to come off as a girl who likes to have fun, internally she stuck to her morals and decided not to give herself away to such a lousy guy. Good call Pert!

You can't quite see it, but Pert's holding her finger over the flask while Jimmy isn't looking. Good decision, Pert. It's probably best not to be drunk in this one's presence.

Pert dons the same tough girl act with Winthrop, but the outcome is different. Why? For starters, there was an obvious instant chemistry between Pert and Winthrop from the moment they started stealing glances when she was on the dance floor. Even though Pert acts more aggressively with Winthrop and was even quick to kiss him - and catching him off guard by making the first move - that's because she was visibly more laid back and comfortable with him. Way more of a gentleman than Jimmy ever could hope to be, Winthrop actually wanted to talk to Pert before trying to get with her - admirable, right? So while Pert plays the flirty party girl card with Winthrop, has a good time, and holds control over the situation, she still keeps her morals in check.

Pert dancing with one guy, exchanging glaces with another. Flirty, yes, but that doesn't mean she's a bad girl!

In both sequences, though, Pert shows that yes, a woman can have fun and also be the type of girl parents can approve of...once you stop judging and actually get to know her. It's also refreshing to see Pert so attune to her surroundings and in control of herself, which I think modern women can relate to. I mean, if a drunk guy who just offered you his flask (which you pretend to drink to get him off your back) leans over and utters: "Well, mama - now that I'm tea'd up - let's neck" would you be quick to take him up on that wonderful offer, even if you outwardly project 'party girl?' Let's hope not.

 

 

4. Preach it, title cards.

Without spoken words in Why Be Good?, we have to rely on the title cards to stand in. These placards struck me as sounding very modern, especially when having to do with the parents' dialogue (which I'll get into below) and the expectations placed upon young women in relationships. 

I wonder if spooning had the same meaning back in 1929.

In particular, Pert's impassioned outburst at the end inspired numerous hoots, hollers, and applause because of how surprisingly modern the words felt. For instance, a title card featuring the following piece of dialogue from Pert to Winthrop: "You asked me to -- I'd have done anything you asked me!" could, and probably has, been uttered today by women and men in modern relationships (and really, in any period of history).

 

Other lines most definitely singled out the double standards that women faced (and still do), such as: "I suppose you'd like me if I wore long skirts and mittens and sat home knitting socks? Yes you would!" While lines like this may bear reference to dated social norms, the meaning behind the words is still one that resonates loudly today. To top it off, the below title card was the one, if I remember correctly, that garnered the loudest reaction from the audience. 

No caption necessary.

Many lines, such as the one above, hit upon topics that directly resonated with a large part of the audience; to hear so many people react so passionately was one of the most surprising (and coolest) takeaways from this screening. As I'll touch upon below, in addition to the sentiment striking me as very contemporary, the mere fact that these opinions were voiced by Pert way back in 1929 also astonished me. I know that some women certainly held these views, but I don't tend to think of that generation as being as outspoken as people are today. That's another reason why many lines packed so much power for me; these definitely aren't words I'm used to hearing (well, seeing) often in classic films, especially silents. 

I could definitely see Pert loudly articulating these words just as they are written had this been a sound picture.

5. Parents: More than just talking heads

1929 reviewer Mae Tinee remarked, "A few more mothers like Mrs. Kelly, as portrayed by Bodil Rosing, and a few more fathers such as Edward Martindale's Peabody Sr., would be acceptable in this old world of ours" (237). If someone who must have watched a lot of movies during her day felt that these characters were not portrayals often seen onscreen at the time, I'm going to take her word for it and agree with her in the process; I also think accurate and heartfelt portrayals of parents of teenagers and young adults are harder to find in classic films (not impossible though). However, this is something I believe we're seeing more of in modern day television and films.

Pert's adorable Ma and Pa (John St. Polis).

Winthrop with his father (Edward Martindel).

In Why Be Good?, the contemporary representation of parents has as much to do with the writing as well as the acting. Pert's Ma and Pa and Winthrop's father represent different worlds, yet both are genuinely trying to protect their children in their respective ways. For example, Winthrop's father thinks he's doing the right thing by firing Pert, because he thinks she's a bad influence, though he's only seen her dance and knows that she stays out late. When he tells Winthrop: "Son, that girl has seen life and shows it," that's strictly speculation; he doesn't know Pert personally at all. Though it's painful to watch Winthrop's father unfairly judge Pert, we also realize that he's just trying to look out for his son. How many modern parents can relate to that sentiment? 

This is really the only image Winthrop's father has of Pert...

...Which cues his suspicions.

Meanwhile, Pert's Ma is supportive while her Pa leans more towards the suspicious side, which is pretty spot-on for parents dealing with the romantic tribulations of their daughters. For example, when Pert admits to her mother that she loves Winthrop and can't live without him, her Ma's face instantly falls flat; she knows those can be dangerous words out of a young women's mouth. Though luckily Ma backs Pert up when Pa is on the cautious end when Pert receives a mini dresser full of clothes from Winthrop. Cue: Pa's suspicions. Luckily, Ma reminds him that Pa bought her gifts during their courtship too!

Pa's not too happy about this gift of clothing Pert received from Winthrop.

Then there's the fact that Pert still lives with her parents, which, back in 1929, was the custom for an unmarried woman (it was even decades later and in certain countries and cultures, it still is the norm). When Pert returns home - after calling her parents to tell them she'll be late - her dad scoffs at her: "--And what's more, no decent girl would wear a dress like that." How many young women have ever heard that line? Many, I'm sure. Pert's reply - to her parents, remember - is: 

Raise your hand if you've defended yourself with this statement before.

Again, this is another phrase countless girls have uttered over the years, but not something you'd exactly expect a young women from 1929 to be saying to her parents; I (and I think many others) tend to think that young people are much more likely to stand up to their parents and voice their opinions today than they were in the 1920s. But that's not all. Pert continues: 

Keep those hands raised.

From all angles, this sentiment still rings true today, though I'm sure some parents would bemoan the lack of financial assistance from their grown offspring, if they happen to reside at home. Perhaps Pert's responsibility may serve as a helpful push/reminder to some out there? Maybe. I'm no parent, but I must say I agree with Pert's opinion, and I think many modern parents would echo the same. 

 

 

While many films of the classic Hollywood era and those made in the years since then have certainly touched on one or several of the above points, I was blown away by the effect this film had on me and how incredibly contemporary it felt - and a silent film recently re-discovered, to boot. Do yourself a favor and purchase this one from Warner Archive for immediate viewing! 

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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