Note: Gordon Thomas’s review of the DVD set The Olive Thomas Collection, first published on November 1, 2005, is also a provocative profile of one of Hollywood’s most fascinating early scandals/tragedies. To mark Thomas’s grim demise on September 10, 1920, we reprint it today for those who may have missed it.
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“She’s got the eyes of a great one, putting over something incalculable . . .”
“. . . our gusto for the lurid or the partly lurid . . . is probably the last of our fleshly appetites to be sated or effectively curbed.”
– J. D. Salinger, Seymour, an Introduction
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The new Image/Milestone DVD release, The Olive Thomas Collection, turns out to be less an Olive Thomas collection than an Olive Thomas crash course. There are two easy steps. First, a nice transfer of one of her few extant films, the 1920 silent The Flapper. Second is going deeper with an all too short (57 min.) but very affecting documentary entitled Olive Thomas, Everybody’s Sweetheart (2004) from Timeline Films.
A gilt-edged frame of morbidity hangs over the name Olive Thomas. Barely known today, Olive Thomas was on the brink of major stardom in 1920 when she died a sudden horrific death under suspicious circumstances a month shy of her 26th birthday. As her penultimate film, The Flapper, opened in the U.S., Thomas and her husband Jack Pickford had sailed to Paris for a belated honeymoon. It was in Paris that Olive, after she and Jack returned to their hotel from a night of partying, ingested a large amount of mercury bichloride with alcohol and died four days later. The drug, highly toxic and meant only for external use, was there to treat Jack’s syphilis.
In his 1975 book Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger awards Thomas’ death the distinction of being the first Hollywood scandal. Not surprising: it was this author/filmmaker’s peculiar bent to find and reveal the famous or near famous dying grotesquely or midst scandal, the humiliation — the cheap irony of stupid or violent death — undercutting the sunny continuance of stardom. If celebrity debasement always seems to get a snicker out of the author, the reader may have his own fit of nervous giggles — but there’s a swoon in the sexual belly as well, a queasy lust when viewing snippets of peek-a-boo nudity followed by blurry postmortem shots. The book is all pre-tumescent erotic kitsch, smothered in death — call it necroprurience.
But Anger gives Olive short shrift as an object of morbid desire. Desultorily, he offers a made-up description of the expired Thomas, discovered by a hotel valet, lying nude on a sable rug, empty bottle of poison nearby. The apparent truth was even more lurid and disquieting. Timeline Films’ latter-day documentary trumps Mr. Babylon with the disclosure of these details: Jack’s syphilis, possibly passed to her (how could Anger have missed that?), Olive’s vocal chords burned through by the poison, then blindness and a four-day-long death agony in a French hospital. On the long voyage home, Jack was distraught, not ever having “watched someone die.” It’s only near its end, in a sober, straightforward manner, that the film whacks us over the head with these dire specifics — it doesn’t give us a chance to want more. Roseanna Arquette’s voiceover certainly has nothing of a leer in it; her tone is subtly admonitory, demanding us to feel the bitter waste of Olive’s demise.
Few of us can avoid the hard-wired cultural fascination with beautiful youth cut short by death. It’s as old as the medieval Death and the Maiden motif (death, her first and last lover) or 19th-century Stephen Foster songs about deceased young maidens (come where my love lies dreaming). Loving a pretty dead girl nowadays — i.e., being a fan — has this advantage: you don’t have to contemplate a tedious career decline culminating in the blowzy star becoming a bewildered alcoholic — Mary Pickford’s muffled, octogenarian end. David O. Selznick’s tearful, mixed metaphor of an epigram for Olive, that her death was like “a dancing sunbeam suddenly snuffed out like a candle,” is the general idea. Mourning a young movie star, long dead, we’re in familiar territory; but — oh, Olive! — we hardly knew ye.
Even if this is essentially impossible given Olive’s 85 years of obscurity, the filmmakers want to give us the real Olive and then, at the snuffing out of the dancing sunbeam, make us feel the terrible loss. As a package — the documentary plus the single film, The Flapper — The Olive Thomas Collection nearly delivers the tender goods, and a soupçon of that necro-romance/prurience, too.
Making an effort to allow Olive the dignity she deserves, the doc leads with the positive. For all her rough edges, Olive Thomas is heralded as a vibrant, intelligent woman who loved life yet focused on career and success. Until the final tragedy, the mood is upbeat, almost cheery, as we’re led, a little briskly, through Thomas’ poverty as an adolescent in small-town Pennsylvania, her early marriage at 16 and divorce at 20, and, in New York, her seemingly meteoric climb from shop girl, to Condé Nast model, to Ziegfeld Follies headliner. Minutes later she’s the hardworking West Coast bit player, then the soon-to-be movie star.
The darker aspects of Olive’s personality are not ignored. She had the aforementioned drinking problem. She liked to have sex — lots of it — and used it to get places. And she had a “temperament” and the loose cannon mouth to go with it. On occasion, it seems, Olive could trumpet obscenities like a cheap whore. The filmmakers give us just a snippet of Lenore Coffee’s reminiscences of Olive in which she recalls that the actress’s foul mouth had an odd lack of self-awareness. But the filmmakers omit Coffee’s illustration of Thomas’s blithe coarseness, a remembrance of one incident that’s revelatory of the unvarnished Olive:
For instance, once in the lobby of a famous hotel an elderly woman dropped her knitting and Olive, in one graceful, sweeping gesture, picked it up and handed it back, displaying in this gesture a magnificent diamond ring which caught the old lady’s eye. “My, how wonderful to have a ring as beautiful as that!”‘ Olive said as carelessly as if she were telling her where to get a cup of tea, “It’s easy, honey. I got this for two humps with a Jew in Palm Beach.”1
This seems the kind of anecdote that Coffee must have honed through multiple tellings at this or that dinner party; it even has a punch line. Still, it’s a crunchy little tale with an aura of credibility and hard to resist. The hint of anti-Semitism is probably why the filmmakers omitted the story. But what’s interesting here is not Olive’s apparent stance on Jews, which was certainly shared by many Americans at that time, but her uninhibited expression of it. The angelic Gish sisters may have harbored a similar attitude — who knows — but their upbringing would never have allowed them to broadcast it in public. As for the “humping.” that’s fascinating, too. The ring may have been a gift in gratitude for sex, but it also could have been payment, or payment in form of a gift. We assume that Olive was never a cheap whore, but the anecdote points to activity not far from prostitution.
Back in the documentary, the omission of this story undermines the depth of its character study. For the filmmakers, the spin on Olive’s backstreet ways and means warrants a feminist edge, which would then be dulled by implications of anti-Semitism and whoring (or worse, gold-digging). They push the temperament, the runaway mouth, the partying, the outsized sexuality as equal parts of a new kind of female star coming down the pike announcing, “I am not Lillian Gish.” In fact, a quote from D. W. Griffith’s cameraman, Billy Bitzer, is key, although the documentary backs off, in another flagrant omission, from giving us its larger context in an extended anecdote from his memoirs, possibly because it features an extremely rude, unpleasant Olive.2
Screen-testing her for an upcoming film, Bitzer found Olive’s apparent lack of professionalism appalling. “She had beauty,” he said, “but she was a new type. I was skeptical … she showed a lack of seriousness … ” The documentary couches this kind of behavior as if it were a career move on Olive’s part, sending Bitzer and the film industry the message that she is a new type; she wants her career to proceed on her own terms.
As Griffith’s number-one cameraman, Billy Bitzer was accustomed to the docile professionalism that D. W. inspired in his young female stars. The Gish sisters and Mae Marsh saw Griffith as a kind of godlike father figure to whom they owed absolute gratitude and allegiance — just for the privilege of taking part in his ground-breaking, high-art cinema adventure. (The range of sexual feelings hiding within Griffith’s paternal relationships with underage women remains anybody’s guess.)
But the film’s truncated quote makes its point: Thomas wanted no part of the world that Bitzer represented. She really was out there on her own, improvising her self-reliance as she swam upstream in the movie business. In no way did she want to be guided away from who she really was. Thomas’ steady belief in herself is the real Olive Thomas story, and the documentary sells it winningly.
Empowered with beauty and intelligence, Olive seemed to view producers, directors and professionals like Bitzer as males to be manipulated. Not a new “type” exactly, but something relatively new to the fledgling movie industry. At the time, just after WWI, the only female movie star with any kind of executive muscle was Mary Pickford herself. But power like Olive’s was different; it had been foreshadowed in the hard-earned independence of top-flight stage actresses, a few Broadway headliners, and high-end prostitutes of the early 20th century. Cutting her entertainer teeth in that world, Olive emerged fully armed and dangerous.
As she became well known and bankable, Olive’s personal life was obfuscated or fictionalized altogether for the public. Publicity in the movie mags fronted her as quick-witted, yet sweet-natured, and often shy. She was the girl you’d like to meet, the girl next door, the girl with whom you bobbed for apples: a real sweetheart. But none of the fake interviews and sugarcoated articles could hide what lay behind her eyes, which were Olive’s most valuable asset, the key to her beauty and the messengers of a complex personality.
By accounts they were light blue or gray, and in some photos, as in the one that fronts this article, they seem to take up half her face. Big eyes are one thing, but also notable is Olive’s sanpaku, that is, the space in the white of her eyes between the iris and the eyes’ lower rim. Because such a space is relatively rare when a person looks you straight in the eye, sanpaku at the very least can lend a face an exotic air, but over the centuries it’s been taken as a sign of everything from the Evil Eye to the malnutrition resulting from a macrobiotic diet. Olive seems neither undernourished nor evil. In her films, sanpaku helps turn her face into a kind of lighthouse sweeping the frame, pulling in the eyes of the audience. The trajectories of these lights, her eyes, are visible in the longest shots. Put Olive in a gaggle of giggling girls and you can spot her immediately. In a close-up, you’ve made it to shore; she’s got the eyes of a great one, putting over something incalculable.
After awhile, staring into these eyes, you do get a sense of this young woman. Milestone’s DVD has that peculiar enchantment of enabling us to toggle back and forth in viewings of The Flapper and the documentary, drenching us with Olive’s image. As for hard facts and details about Thomas, the documentary fails to give us much that isn’t unconfirmed anecdote; its small array of talking heads include none that knew Olive while she was alive. (To do so and deliver anything reliable or interesting, you’d have to be over 100 years old.) An old Ziegfeld chorine shows up to talk about the Follies, but she began dancing there after Olive had left. There is a grand niece and a cousin present to pass on ancient family stories about Thomas, but where are the snapshots that would give us an everyday Olive out of the spotlight? Her image, moving or still, survives almost solely in films, production stills, or portraits — at least within this project.
Perhaps only half her films still exist, many of these held in private archives in who knows what decaying state; The Flapper is the only film currently available on home video. Generous in sharing what they’ve gleaned from these, the documentarians edit the film clips skillfully, shuffling them in with the stills. Often a brief passage from a film will fill in for, say, Olive making one of her rare appearances to family in the rural Midwest. This confusion is really skillful manipulation: we begin to believe we’re keeping company with Olive’s actual ghost, and that’s OK.
Silents of this vintage — when film grammar was still being invented and techniques were rudimentary — can often seem like elaborately staged home movies. Here the idea was simply to put Olive in the car, have her drive it, and somehow it all gets filmed. The result for us after all these years is a breezy intimacy with Olive herself. Her “performance” has a daredevil freshness to it. She seems young enough not to have raced a lot of roadsters along country roads, but her face has that game “I’ll try anything once” look on it and, anyway, she’s having fun. You can imagine her buying drinks for everyone after a day of shooting, still pumped by the excitement of it all. “Jesus H. Christ,” she’s saying, “I thought I’d put that Oldsmobile in the ditch any second … ”
The documentary’s point that Olive is merely playing herself is a simplification, but there is a sense of an untrained Olive stepping rather casually into her roles and “reacting” instead of acting (as John Wayne made the distinction in a short discourse on movie acting). You believe that the emotions and gestures you’re seeing are uniquely Olive’s; the enlargement — the enhancement — of a personality is the transformative process that makes someone a movie star in the modern sense, and Olive Thomas was there as constellations of such stars were just being born. Given the examples from earlier films, it’s clear that Olive had this largeness of personality and the means to project it from the beginning.
The Flapper contains enough crystalline Olive Moments that you may forget the film — and The Flapper is purposely silly and easy to forget — because the camera’s capturing something outside the boundaries of playacting. No one considered Thomas much of an actress, and The Flapper makes few such demands on her anyway. The film is a throwaway comedy, reasonably well made but likely to have disappeared altogether if it had not been for its other dimension, which is the presence of Olive Thomas playing a girl nearly ten years her junior. A startlingly beautiful grownup woman that you’d love to meet is right there dressed in a little sailor suit.
In 1920, Olive’s future in pictures seemed bright, and Selznick’s promotional material for The Flapper and her last film, Everybody’s Sweetheart, actually went only to reinforce the kind of image Olive had already created herself in her more than 15 films, which was that of a plucky, resourceful, and, of course, very pretty, teenaged girl. In the years before and after WWI, it seems the moviegoing public was just as fixated on youth as they are now. Serials from the ‘teens and into the twenties were full of these girls, of course: innocent, but full of spunk, always getting themselves in and out of trouble as they naively encountered the dangers of the world. Born sometime during the age of the 19th-century stage melodrama, this kind of resolute teen maiden stretched her muscles in the early decades of America film, as in D.W. Griffith’s Biograph short The Lonesdale Operator (1911), starring Blanche Sweet. In his later features, Griffith’s roster of impressive female talent often played girls in their teens. Olive’s sister-in-law, Mary Pickford, owed her entire career and a vast fortune, to playing, well into her thirties, a host of young girl characters, even pre-adolescents.
The Flapper plays light with a teenager’s desire to be “all grown up”; Olive’s Genevieve King is a kind of protean Gidget, chafing under the restrictions placed on her by the harsh mores of her fantastically repressed hometown of Orange Springs, Florida. Probably in production the year Prohibition began (1919), the film presents Orange Springs as the kind of town that “doesn’t even have a saloon to close.” Caught dawdling with a boy at the local ice cream emporium, Genevieve is dispatched by her father (a senator and apparently widowed) to a girl’s boarding school up north.
Genevieve lands in trouble in no time. Frolicking with the other nubiles in the snowbound landscape outside the school, she attracts the attention of an older man each of the other girls has already targeted as crush material. Rather suspiciously, here’s a wealthy, thirty-something guy, Richard Channing, who, with an air of studied ennui, likes to ride his horse every day right next to the playground of the little darlings. Nobody alerts the sheriff; the girls dream on. While Genevieve (now called Ginger by the girls) pictures him on a white horse, some of the girls fantasize wife-beating and the like. The film lets all this hang in the air. It’s the dawn of the roaring twenties.
Ginger: Did you notice a gentleman driving away in a sleigh?
Richard: No, but I saw a kid chasing one.
Ginger’s dreamed-of adventure begins. Channing first asks her age (“Almost 20.”), then invites her to a “dance at the Country Club.” Giving her a thorough once-over accompanied by a raised eyebrow and a thin-lipped grin, Channing is obviously attracted to the little miss, like, you know, any man would be. Thomas is so convincing here as an underage girl that modern audiences might ponder his motives; the actor playing Channing makes it clear that he sees right through Ginger’s little routine, so what’s going on?
Rest assured nothing ugly or untoward happens to Ginger here or for the rest of the film, which of course completes her sentimental education by returning her to virginal girlhood. Channing proves to be a protector not a seducer: the film is comfortable with the idea of a mature man being able to handle both an attraction and a protective role toward a young girl. None of the moral/ethical contortions of recent American films, like the comedy/drama American Beauty (1999), are needed here. The Flapper is rather deft with the comedy implicit in Channing’s soft predicament and doesn’t overwork it.
The Flapper proves to be an efficient, well-paced entertainment machine with Olive Thomas firmly in control. Part of the joy is watching the eccentric inwardness of Thomas’ characterization. Ginger King operates, obliviously, in accordance with a determined inner drive — Olive’s in her own little world, as are all the best comedians. When her appearance at the dance ends in inevitable disaster, Ginger halfheartedly, and inefficiently, attempts suicide that same night by hanging herself from a light fixture. Too inept for success anyway, she obviously doesn’t believe in the gesture, which is interrupted by new dramatic events.
Ginger spots another girl escaping from the school, into the arms of a mustachioed man with a motorcar. Minutes later: the discovery of the school’s empty safe. Everyone’s in a tizzy, except for Ginger, who tries to look shocked but stands there in her pajamas with a gleam in her eye. Throughout these scenes, she’s been running around from room to room with her improvised noose tied round her neck, the rest of the cord trailing down the back of her and along the floor. When the other girls finally settle down enough to notice the business of the noose and cord, Ginger swiftly gathers up the whole thing, arranges it around her neck like a fashion statement, and sashays elegantly in her p.j’s up the stairs to her room.
Shortly, at the behest of the errant bad girl/thief and her reptile boyfriend, Ginger must escape to New York City. The film heralds her arrival with a wonderful instance of location work that has Thomas climb to the open upper level of a double-decker bus as it moves along a major Manhattan thoroughfare. No rear projection business here but a magical glimpse of actual 1920 New York; you can almost taste the city in the open air sunshine. Olive comically overacts girlish wonder at the sights until she has to fend off a middle-aged masher and that’s funny, too.
When Ginger returns home to Orange Springs, flapper en regalia, she’s wearing a black, bizarre gown-like outfit with matching hat and gloves that covers every inch of her. Its final touch is a four- to five-foot-long ornamental walking stick. The outfit’s effect is more regal and middle-aged than free-spirited or fun-loving, but Olive has a good time with her final scene with Channing, in which she listlessly tells him of her “double life,” leaving him to guess its specifics because she has no idea of what they would be either.
Back in her gingham dress — the game is over as far as she’s concerned — Ginger sees the results of her elaborately plotted big city hijinks come home to roost. The story ends with a flurry of comedy that resolves her errors so briskly that the audience has no chance to ponder any of the implausibility. I’m sure no formula was born with this film, but it’s an early example of Hollywood’s very high learning curve on how to sell one, established or not.
In the end I’ll admit that I’m infatuated with Olive Thomas, and why not? Just look at her.
- Lenore Coffee, Storyline; Recollections of a Hollywood Screenwriter (London: Cassell, 1973), p.44. [↩]
- Billy Bitzer, Billy Bitzer: His Story (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1973). The other botched skit included on the DVD is an adaptation of this Bitzer reminiscence. The master cameraman’s befuddlement is played for laughs. [↩]