Clara Bow plays the baby vamp of Prescott College, who spends her time partying and drinking and dancing and romancing Donald Keith, the star athlete who was told to steer clear of such temptations. But flappers will be flappers.
Plastics? Plastics? We don’t need no stinkin’ plastics!
College pictures were big business in the silent era and it’s easy to see why. It was a way to showcase youths (so what if some of them were well into their thirties), wild parties and, of course, the inevitable do-or-die scene on the gridiron.
The Plastic Age was one of OVER A DOZEN movies Clara Bow made in 1925 and it’s a pretty typical flapper picture with apparent sin among the youth but looks are deceiving. The Plastic Age is based on the novel of the same name by Percy Marks. It was initially announced that Carl Laemmle had obtained the rights and was going to produce a “Super-Jewel” adaptation. (This was Universal’s designation for high budget pictures.) However, B.P. Schulberg ended up with the book and it’s probably just as well because at least Clara Bow makes the picture watchable.
The hero of the picture is Hugh Carver (Donald Keith), an athlete and excellent student who is off to college. His parents, Henry B. Walthall and Mary Alden, are proud of their boy and want him to go far at Prescott College, particularly in athletics.
Hugh’s dorm roommate, Carl (Gilbert Roland), is a girl crazy party animal with a “No Parking” sign hung over his bed. (“Parking” was 1920s slang for stopping the car to canoodle.) He loves all the young ladies at college but is most smitten with Cynthia Day (Clara Bow), the wildest girl on campus.
Naturally, star athlete Hugh falls for her too and Cynthia drops Carl to get together with Hugh. All is not rosy, though, as Hugh’s grades slip and he isn’t concentrating on his athletic training. Seeing this, Cynthia makes a drastic decision in order to save Hugh from himself.
All of this is completely par for the course. While flapper films often looked wild on the surface, they had among the most socially conservative messages in Hollywood. A flapper is just a housewife who hasn’t yet sown all of her wild oats yet but if she is approached properly, she will become as demure and dainty as one could please. (Applesauce!)
Obviously, the question everyone will ask is “How is Bow?” and the answer is that she is just fine in this picture, as lively and energetic as we could hope. Sure, the story is silly but she gives it her all and very nearly saves it. If only Schulberg hadn’t insisted on teaming her with Donald Keith and giving him much of the heavy lifting as an actor. I would much rather have seen Gilbert Roland take the lead! Sure, he overacts a bit in some parts but his charisma is evident.
(By the way, this picture is supposed to have big names like Clark Gable as extras. I am hopeless at identification but it sure looks like him to me.)
The Plastic Age was seen as an immoral novel with its portrayals of wild college life. The Educational Screen threw an absolute tantrum at the very idea of an adaptation on general principle and declared the film to be “rubbish.” But then the capsule review continues along very bizarre lines:
“Film Daily says of one scene: “There is a gag where a soldier returning from war is confronted by his wife who shows him a new baby, that is a pip. The soldier can not believe that it is his child. So he counts on his fingers, and then certain and sure — he hugs his wife. It is a great kick.” Evidently it has not occurred to Danny, editor of Film Daily, that this might embarrass the hosts of young men and women who attend the movies together.”
The problem? Such a scene appears nowhere in The Plastic Age but it DOES appear, per Film Daily, in The Dark Angel, a Ronald Colman/Vilma Banky WWI picture, and the gag is described word-for-word just above the publication’s coverage for The Plastic Age. Before criticizing Danny for embarrassing the young people of America (?), The Educational Screen really should have been sure of their facts.
Condemning a Clara Bow movie as immoral sight unseen? Yeah, that sounds like it’s about par for the course. The punchline? The Dark Angel, the film that actually contained the offending gag and also had a scene in which an unmarried couple spends a night together, was declared to be perfectly acceptable. The Plastic Age contains a fair amount of dancing and flirting but no actual sex. If that doesn’t prove the anti-Bow bias of some film publications, I don’t know what does.
The Educational Screen goes on to tsk tsk and claim that boys were staying home in droves lest they see a pregnancy joke with their best girl. Somehow, I doubt this was true. If young people were really so prim in the 1920s, we would have died out as a species. Also, I wonder at the magazine never questioning the sudden appearance of a doughboy in a modern college picture.
That’s not to say that The Plastic Age is a perfect film. Far from it. It basically has one advantage—Clara Bow—and while she does her best, she can’t quite save the picture because it’s not her story. This is the Hugh Show, heaven help us.
I would like to point out that if Thermians from the Klaatu Nebula were to watch this film, they would at no point learn that colleges had things like classrooms and tests and lectures and such and would only hear vague mentions of “studying” something or other. I don’t know which majors Hugh or Carl or Cynthia were pursuing. I realize that collegiate pictures are about the parties and the games but this is one of them thar lesson pictures. If Hugh is upbraided for neglecting his studies but the audience never has any idea what he’s studying, well, that seems to be a mixed message.
As a flapper picture leading man, at least Donald Keith was actually the same age as the young ladies he was romancing. It was big at the time, you see, to portray wild flappers as settling down with men old enough to be their dear old dads. Not that I dislike Antonio Moreno or Milton Sills or Clive Brook but I think they would bore the brains out of any real hot Jazz Age kitten.
But Keith is pretty unconvincing as the greatest athlete since Jim Thorpe. He doesn’t seem to show any enthusiasm for it and I am tempted to cook him a big turkey dinner with all the trimmings and maybe a few milkshakes just to fill him out a bit. I do apologize to Keith fans but I’d just as soon see Buddy Rogers or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. or Billy Haines in the boy flapper roles.
Spoiler Ahoy: When we watch movies with sports and games, we generally accept a certain amount of streamlining and adjustments for dramatic purposes. For example, most of us forgive the fact that poker games always seem to hinge on a straight flush that just needs that old ace of spades. So, I get that. We need to make stuff exciting.
That being said, the climactic football game is kind of a dud. In the first place, there doesn’t seem to be an actual team and Hugh does absolutely everything except for a small section of the game when Carl is tossed in. I realize that we have established that the coach is a dunderhead (he let Carl practice his tackles on Hugh right before the big game) but still… I think I would have been more convinced if Keith had weighed more than 90 lbs. soaking wet.
And the whole thing ends with the bold Miss Bow suddenly forgetting that she’s a flapper and turning into a demure old-fashioned miss who won’t go after the guy she likes. Ha! I don’t buy it for a second.
The Plastic Age is not nearly as wild as the marketing department would like you to think. Really, the only draw for the picture is the presence of Miss Bow but that’s a pretty strong incentive. You’ll definitely want to see this if you’re a fan but a first-timer might want to watch something like Mantrap as their introduction to Bow.
I declare this picture to be silly but harmless. And certainly not the despoiler of young dating couples that The Educational Screen makes it out to be. So there’s that.