“I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, and Colleen Moore was the torch.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald
Charming, vivacious and talented, Colleen Moore was one of the most popular stars of the 1920s. She was a true original, yet other stars, better known today, are credited with her innovations. Clara Bow is the most famous movie flapper, but Moore was the first to popularize the flapper image in 1923’s Flaming Youth. Louise Brooks wasn’t the first star to wear a distinctive helmet of dark bobbed hair. Moore, tired of her unruly locks, chopped them off short and straight two years before Brooks’s screen debut. Moore was a dynamic comedienne and a vibrant dramatic actress who successfully made the transition to talkies, yet she walked away from it all in 1934. Today, few of her films survive, and she is nearly forgotten.
Born Kathleen Morrison in 1899, Moore entered movies in 1916 due to a favor that D.W. Griffith owed her uncle, legendary Chicago newspaper editor Walter Howey (the inspiration for the editor in The Front Page). Howey knew Kathleen wanted to be a movie actress, and he persuaded Griffith to give her a contract, sight unseen. Howey was also responsible for changing her name to Colleen Moore, telling her that her real name was too long to fit onto a marquee. After only three films, however, Moore’s contract was dropped, along with those of all but Griffith’s core group of players.
Moore had a typical career for an ingénue of the era, playing sweet young maidens in a number of ordinary programmers. In her 1968 memoir Silent Star, she described her roles as wide-eyed innocents who asked, “Papa, what is beer?” Her luck soon changed when director Marshall Neilan, who had his own production company, signed her to a contract and gave her the title role in Dinty (1920). The film boosted her career, and she began working with prestigious directors such as King Vidor (Sky Pilot, 1921), and co-stars like John Barrymore (The Lotus Eater, 1922).
Neilan, known as “Mickey,” had entered show business as a stage actor, which included a 1905 stint at the Barney Bernard Stock company in San Francisco. Some years later, in Hollywood, he ran into a fellow actor he had known in New York D.W. Griffith, who was now a director. Griffith hired Neilan to be his chauffeur, and through him Neilan met Allan Dwan, who gave him acting work and his first break at directing. By the age of 26, Neilan was one of the highest-paid directors in Hollywood, and a favorite of Mary Pickford’s. He was a charmer, a carouser, a drinker, and a spendthrift, and, like most who knew him, Moore adored him. They became great friends.
On a blind date, Neilan introduced Moore to the man who would become her first husband: John McCormick, a publicist and later a production executive. He got her a contract with First National and turned her from a featured player into a star with an adaptation of the best-selling novel Flaming Youth. The film caused a sensation, and made the flapper style and look instantly popular. Overnight, Moore became the onscreen epitome of the flapper. She and McCormick married that same year, and both of their careers flourished.
Unfortunately, the marriage was in trouble from the start, as McCormick was an alcoholic and Moore could do nothing in the face of this fact for a long time. The trajectory of their marriage – as her career rose, his declined – was said to be the inspiration for A Star Is Born (1937). At least two incidents in the film were based on their life: a drunken McCormick once attempted suicide by walking into the ocean, although, unlike the fictional Norman Maine, he survived; and, in 1927, when he was fired from First National for his drinking, Moore, then at the height of her popularity, phoned an executive at the studio and announced herself by saying, “This is Mrs. John McCormick.” Adela Rogers St. Johns, one of Moore’s closest friends (she would write Moore’s biggest hit, 1928’s Lilac Time), later related both incidents to producer David O. Selznick, who incorporated them into A Star Is Born. Moore protested her husband’s firing by walking out on the film she was acting in at the time, and threatened to retire. First National responded by threatening to sue. Eventually they came to an agreement, and both Moore and McCormick returned to the studio. The first film Moore made after the incident was Her Wild Oat.
By this time, Neilan had blown all his money, lost his production company, and gone back to working at the studios, including MGM, where he repeatedly clashed with Louis B. Mayer. Neilan’s famous quip, “an empty cab pulled up to the studio and Louis B. Mayer got out,” reportedly so infuriated Mayer that he retaliated by forcing a happy ending onto Neilan’s adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1924). After that, Neilan found himself reduced to director-for-hire status, and he worked at various studios. Thanks to the intervention of Colleen Moore and John McCormick, he signed with First National in 1926 at a fraction of his usual fee and Moore was happy to work with him on Her Wild Oat.
Once filming was complete, Moore went on a sailing trip with her parents, leaving the increasingly difficult McCormick behind. He stayed drunk the entire time she was gone, and insisted on re-editing the film in her absence. When Moore returned, she found that he had shortened almost every scene, ruining the payoffs to all the jokes. Fortunately, the editor had kept all the footage cut by McCormick, and he, Moore, and Neilan restored it while McCormick was drying out in a sanatorium. Moore finally divorced McCormick in 1930.
She made several sound films, including The Power and the Glory (1933) written by Preston Sturges and co-starring Spencer Tracy, but she came to recognize that she was too strongly identified with an era that had now passed, and she retired from the screen. After a brief second marriage, she wedded a widowed Chicago businessman with two children in 1937, and kept busy with philanthropic work, raising her family, and playing the stock market. She was a founder of the Chicago International Film Festival. After her husband’s death in 1964, she moved to a ranch in Paso Robles next to the home of old friend King Vidor. She remarried once more in 1983, and died in 1988.
Marshall Neilan’s lifestyle ruined his marriage to actress Blanche Sweet in 1929, and it ruined his career soon after. Out of loyalty, old friends would occasionally give him work as a second-unit director or actor. He played a bit part in A Star Is Born (1937) and a politician in A Face in the Crowd (1957). He died in 1958.
The majority of Moore’s films are lost, but an export version of Her Wild Oat was discovered at the Czech National Film Archive in 2001. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences spent $80,000 to restore it and translate the Czech titles back into English, and audiences can once again enjoy a film featuring one of the silent era’s most delightful comediennes.
Presented at SFSFF 2008 with live music by Michael Mortilla