TCM Film Fest 2015: Why Be Good?

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I have a new favorite film seen in 2015.

Colleen Moore is absolutely, unequivocally the most adorable thing ever as Pert Kelly, a young girl who goes out and parties every night, embodying the carefree flapper spirit. We catch up with her when she’s agreed to go out with a super smarmy guy because he’s rich, but she clearly has limits on how far she’s willing to go. Exactly where those limits are become a sticking point when she trades out smarmfest for cleancut young Winthrop Peabody Jr (played by a very handsome Neil Hamilton) enjoying his last evening out before taking the job as personnel manager for his father’s department store. Turns out Pert is a clerk in the store, and when Peabody Sr discovers the kind of girl his son is going with, he objects – not because she’s a working girl (he’s too progressive for that), but because he assumes such a party girl has “been around,” as they say.

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The thing is, Pert is actually a good girl playing bad because it’s fun – and before you groan at the good girl/bad girl dichotomy, the film is much more subtle about it than you’d expect. We’re definitely dealing with some old-fashioned gender mores in one way, especially as exemplified by Peabody Sr, but in its best moments, this movie is as progressively feminist as most things made today – and let me tell you, the moment when she tells her boyfriend off for seeming to follow in his father’s footsteps is both fist-bumpingly awesome (everyone in the theatre burst into spontaneous applause and cheers) and incredibly sobering when you realize that we’re still dealing with literally the same sexist crap today, 86 years later.

Throughout the film, there’s a tension between what Pert knows about herself – she’s a good person who likes having fun – and what other people think of her based on their preconceptions of what good girls should be like. Her father is scandalized by how late she stays out, finding her sitting on the stairs kissing a boy at all hours of the night, and receiving clothes as a present from said boy. Peabody Sr. is obviously turned on by her dancing, but heartily disapproves of his son marrying her. It’s as clear a picture of a double standard as I’ve ever seen. Pert’s mom is the bright spot in this – she trusts her daughter implicitly yet still has wise advice to give her. I would watch a prequel about Mrs. Kelly when she was young.

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Why Be Good? is a transitional silent from 1929 – there’s no spoken dialogue, but the film was created with a pre-recorded soundtrack of music and sound effects, and even a nonsense song sung by the worst wingmen of all time (seriously, Peabody Jr. is making out with Pert on the steps, and his buddies are out there in the car singing loudly, honking the horn, and yelling at him to come on). In the mid-1990s, a preservationist found the records of this soundtrack, but thought the film itself was lost, until another preservationist piped up that he knew of one copy – in an archive in Italy who was being hyper. After some twenty years (!) of negotiation, US archivists were finally able to get the film back and begin the work of restoration in 2012. Yet another reminder not to ever give up – up to 80% of silent films are thought to be lost, but miracles happen every year.

The film is available on disc from Warner Archive (I do not know if it’s based on the same print we saw at the Festival or not), and well worth checking out.

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