“Go sit on a flagpole!”
Film is inherently fragile, so no success story feels more impressive or heartening than the sudden reappearance of an artwork thought irretrievably lost in the eighty years since its conception. When it’s also the work of rarely seen artists from the golden age of silent film, ones whose achievements are not widely seen or available on DVD, that makes an irresistible layer of icing on the cake.
Such is the case with the recent find at the Czech National Film Archive of a nitrate print of Her Wild Oat, First National’s witty farce released as the studio’s 1927 Christmas holiday offering, and a lively vehicle to showcase Colleen Moore, chosen as America’s number one box-office attraction in 1926 by the annual Quigley Poll of exhibitors. Refreshingly light on its feet, the film equally makes a muscular argument for the talent of Marshall Neilan, a shameful casualty of the newly consolidating studio system, yet at one time the country’s top director (only Ernst Lubitsch commanded a higher salary).
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Archive spent $80,000 over a year to restore and reconstitute the recovered print from the ground up, as all English language intertitles and inserts had been replaced with Czech material. According to archivist Joe Lindner, who presented the film at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival (and earlier at Cinecon in Los Angeles), their efforts rescued even a previously censored line about “girls in short skirts getting tanned all the way up to the Canadian border.”
Full of snappy wisecracks (“Go sit on a flagpole!”) and upbeat energy, the film gives Moore a typical role for the era’s independent young woman, a plucky orphan who must make her way through the world without a family’s protection, while aspiring to raise her station yet not quite certain about how to climb the social ladder. Wearing her Dutch boy hair bob and bangs (a look copied from a favorite Japanese doll), Moore already embodied the “flapper” phenomenon of the Roaring Twenties (F. Scott Fitzgerald allowed that he and Colleen Moore had virtually invented the iconic flapper, he in his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise and she in her 1923 hit movie Flaming Youth).
In Her Wild Oat, the delightful and bright-eyed Moore makes a living by operating a lunch wagon for neighborhood blue-collar workers, then pulling it all the way home (she can’t afford a horse). Fate has her cross paths with a scandal-mongering tabloid journalist (“His expense account got the Pulitzer Prize for Best Fairy Tale”), a seen-it-all gold digger nicknamed Iowa Girl (“Iowa a month’s rent, daddy!”), and a Wall Street broker who gets mugged and abandoned in his underwear. As she pursues the latter to San Diego’s picturesque Coronado Hotel (still a millionaires’ habitat in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot), her underclass grit comes up against upperclass snobbery as Moore finds herself masquerading as a high society aviatrix called the Duchess de Granville, a made-up name that hilariously turns out to belong to her hearthrob’s stepmother.
Neilan keeps the comedy moving briskly yet never allows it to turn frantic, staging several uproarious moments that exhibit the inventive spontaneity and feather-light cinematic touch that had made his name when he directed five Mary Pickford hits in a row, not least the superb Stella Maris (1917), still delicate and powerful in ways unimaginable in pop films today. An ardent ladies’ man and high-living party boy, Neilan had parlayed a job as D. W. Griffith’s chauffeur into an acting career and then moved to the director’s chair to guide major stars of his time like John Barrymore, Lon Chaney, and Ronald Colman.
Notorious for his killer quip, “An empty cab pulled up and Louis B. Mayer got out,” Neilan could likely credit this widely repeated witticism for sending his career into a bitter tailspin that left him impoverished by the 1940s. Beginning with Mayer’s insistence on wrenching an incongruous happy ending out of Neilan’s 1924 Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the director clashed with the mogul who was installing the new top-down control model of the major studio system. Mayer’s new assembly-line methods served to paralyze creative artists, especially fervent individualists like Erich von Stroheim, Rex Ingram, and Maurice Tourneur, no less than Neilan, all of whom got labeled as willful troublemakers and soon left MGM’s stable. Neilan’s considerable charm wore increasingly thin as alcoholism and binge disappearances interfered with his work to the point that even his longtime collaborator, Mary Pickord, had to fire him from her own 1933 production of Secrets(eventually signed by director Frank Borzage).
In comparison, Moore emerged from the jazz age a winner and survivor, though she had spectacular problems too, primarily a shaky marriage to First National executive John McCormick. He had steered her toward producing her own vehicles, with Sally(1925), Irene (1926), Twinkletoes (1926), and Oh, Kay! (1928) making a successive string of personal hits in that most improbable genre, the silent musical. Before long, the careers of Moore and McCormick were headed in opposite directions, with the clash between her stardom and his alcoholism reportedly inspiring Cukor’s insider Hollywood drama What Price Hollywood in 1932 as well as its successors, three versions of A Star Is Born. The last straw was McCormick’s advocacy of 1929’s Smiling Irish Eyes, where Moore made her unfortunate talkie debut affecting an Emerald Isle brogue in a screenplay filled with such Hibernian stereotypes that Ireland banned the movie and the couple divorced within a year.
Meanwhile, a new generation was appearing on Her Wild Oat‘s soundstage. Lurking as an extra in a ping-pong table scene was a ravishing 14-year-old beauty named Gretchen Young. Spotted by Moore, the veteran star changed the youngster’s name to “Loretta” after “the most beautiful doll I ever had,” and won a contract for her at Warner Brothers, starting the actress on a lengthy career working for the likes of Frank Capra, John Ford, Cecil B. DeMille, and Orson Welles.
As the silent era drew to a close, film grammar was approaching its apex in such 1927 masterworks as Sunrise, Underworld, The General, The Student Prince of Heidelberg, Seventh Heaven, Hotel Imperial, My Best Girl, Metropolis, and Napoléon. Against this sterling company, Neilan and Moore’s Her Wild Oat may not seem groundbreaking, but the film’s grace and speed, the director’s buoyant tone, and the star’s invigorating optimism are all considerable qualities that should not be underestimated, and they helped set the stage for the sound era’s parade of glorious screwball comedies.
When Moore forsook Hollywood for Chicago in 1935, she never returned to filmmaking, but instead wrote a book on stock market investments, installed a still celebrated half-million-dollar doll house at the city’s Museum of Science and Industry, and co-founded the Chicago International Film Festival. She also remarried three times, accumulating in the process a good number of family members, some of whom were happily able to attend the rebirth of Her Wild Oat in Chicago. Meanwhile, Warners will reportedly release Moore’s last two silent features (Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good?) with the original Vitaphone jazz scores on DVD in the coming year (though possibly not Her Wild Oat).
For much more on Colleen Moore, there’s a thorough sifting of the evidence at this labor-of-love website.