Flickhead
Film Review
By Ray Young

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Memories of Olive by Alberto Vargas

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The Olive Thomas Collection

Two films (plus bonus material) on one DVD.

The Flapper Directed by Alan Crosland. Script by Frances Marion. Starring Olive Thomas, Theodore Westman, Jr., Katherine Johnston, and Arthur Housman. 88 minutes, originally released in 1920.

Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart Produced and written by Sarah Baker and Andi Hicks. Directed by Ms. Hicks. Narrated by Rosanna Arquette. 57 minutes, originally released in 2003 under the title, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.

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For more information contact

Milestone Film & Video—or call them at (800) 603-1104
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olive04.jpg    When determining the true popularity of stars and films of yesteryear, I often turn to elder friends and relatives who are eager to reminisce and set records straight. Octogenarians born in the late teens and 1920’s, they experienced the silent era in provincial movie houses well into the 30’s. The Jazz Singer may have signaled the arrival of sound in 1927, but outside of major cities there were few rural theatres equipped with the new technology and continued showing silents. When I asked my panel of unscientific and admittedly subjective experts—some of whom still pine for the good ol’ days of Vilma Banky—to fill me in about Olive Thomas, they all drew a blank. Which is a good indication that I’m dealing with an obscure figure whose recent prominence may be the PR work of revisionists and sycophants.
    Leonard Maltin, Joe Franklin or William K. Everson undoubtedly once wrote about her in fan publications like Film Fan Monthly or Films in Review. But the first mention that I ever came across was in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon (New York: Bell Publishing), when the book debuted in America in 1975. Prefacing all the drug busts, murders and suicides in his giddy history of Tinsel Town, Anger’s chapter on Olive was focused more on her mysterious death than her career. To this day, no one’s sure if it was a homicide, an accident, or if she took her own life with poison just months shy of her twenty-sixth birthday.
    With Hugh Hefner as executive producer, narrated by Rosanna Arquette and new to DVD, Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart (a/k/a, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World) is the first documentary to trace her life and profession. In addition to the obligatory clips, stills and reenactments, filmmakers Sarah Baker and Andi Hicks interview descendants who never knew Olive personally but imagine her as royalty. (Her second marriage was to a kind of eminence: Jack Pickford, Mary’s brother and a major player in Hollywood.) Allison Anders, the director of Gas, Food Lodging and Grace of My Heart, submits an aesthetic perspective of the actress, and shows off the rather eerie candlelit shrine to Olive and Jack she keeps in her living room.
    They tell the story of a girl who walked away from a hard life in Pennsylvania for a dream of fame and fortune in Manhattan. And Olive—already married and divorced before she hit twenty—was in the right place at the right time. She won contests, appeared in magazine ads, and found herself on stage in the Ziegfeld Follies. (One of the documentary’s interviewees, 101-year-old Doris Eaton Travis and a member of the Follies at the time, doesn’t remember Olive.) It all took place at the New Amsterdam Theatre, which Olive’s ghost reportedly haunts to this day.

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In the pits: Olive Thomas as The Flapper

    Clocking in at a brisk fifty-seven minutes, Everybody’s Sweetheart is a flattering sketch that cautiously sideswipes her far more intriguing dark side. From a poor Irish family, Olive’s father died young and subsequent relationships with men found her gravitating toward abusers, alcoholics and drug addicts. Jack Pickford was a known hophead and dope fiend who died at the age of thirty-seven. Baker and Hicks soft-pedal the issue and even fail to mention that Olive’s biggest benefactor in Hollywood, producer/agent Myron Selznick, was also a notorious juicer. (The older brother of David, Myron died from complications spurred on by his drinking at the age of forty-six.) Cinematographer Billy Bitzer’s complaint that he couldn’t get the childish, distracted Olive to sit still for a photo session provides another warning sign of dysfunction. Embroiled in the psychological quagmire of the pursuit of stardom, Olive was saddled with a lot of baggage.

    The documentary’s title, Everybody’s Sweetheart is a stone’s throw from Mary Pickford’s moniker, “America’s Sweetheart,” but Mary—who wielded more power in her day than Oprah Winfrey or Julia Roberts do now—faced no competition from Olive at the box office. Included on the DVD, The Flapper, a feature concocted for Thomas by Selznick from an anemic script by Frances Marion, is a taxing exercise in the suspension of disbelief. Baker and Hicks and Anders (and Alberto Vargas and Flo Ziegfeld, who may have pimped Olive out to the swells at his after-hours club) claim her beauty was everlasting and transcendent. If there were ever a case of beauty being in the eye of the beholder, however, this is most assuredly it.
    Allowing for that earlier generation’s proclivity for “thick” women, Olive nonetheless lumbers across the screen, graceless and bovine. Still photos and brief film clips hide the grotty truth: in front of the lens for an extended period serves to underline a squat, box-like face too small for the portly head; a rotund, nearly shapeless midriff-cum-beer gut; and, perhaps most distressing of all, kankles. Nor is there any indication in The Flapper—an unromantic, unfunny situation comedy—of the poise, comic timing, intelligence, sensuality or allure which the documentary lists among her assets. Blame Frances Marion for the script’s innumerable deficiencies, and director Alan Crosland was obviously grinding out the assignment to meet a deadline. But the star often looks twice her age, in a misguided but metaphoric scenario about a dodgy vulgarian bulldozing her way through polite society.

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External links:

  • Memories of Olive

  • Interview with Sarah Baker

  • Frances Marion

  • Myron Selznick

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    For more information contact Milestone Film & Video—or call them at (800) 603-1104

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    Copyright © 2005 by Ray Young