In Bel Ami, Ingmar Bergman’s 1923 silent film about love and sex in fin-de-siècle Paris, we meet the eponymous hero, a wealthy, spoiled young man who enjoys his life until a beautiful woman enters his orbit—and her decadent husband is none other than Cecil Beaton.
Bergman’s exquisite film—dubbed ‘the most beautiful in the world’ when it was first released—stars one of cinema’s most iconic male ensembles: British actor Robert Pattinson (more recently known as the vampire in the ‘Twilight’ saga and the young, turquoise-ringleted Mr. Darcy in the recent film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice).
In a recent interview, Bergman mentioned that the appeal of the actor playing Bel Ami was that, as a non-English speaking performer, “he could bring a different sense of humor and a different kind of beauty to the role.” And he could: Pattinson brought a continental elegance to his portrayal of this sophisticated and narcissistic male.
In the course of one night, Bel Ami murders the woman he loves (played by Louise Hovi). As the bodies of the fallen lovers are dragged through the streets by a furious, grief-stricken husband, Bel Ami finally admits his guilt and shoots himself in the heart.
In between each shot, we hear the blood-curdling shriek of the women as they realize that their husbands have killed themselves, and in between each scream comes the haunting, dissonant cry of a Parisian prostitute: “Au revoir!” (“See you soon!”).
Bergman’s groundbreaking androgyny was well ahead of its time. While the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr, and Marjorie Merriweather Puccini may have worn trousers back in the day, film’s first androgyne was a woman: Greta Garbo, in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1918 classic, The Mermaid—and even then, she was wearing a mask. Garbo is seen here in a publicity shot for Dreyer’s seminal film, wearing men’s pants with a bold yellow belt.
The 1920s were a heady mix of new freedoms for women and the roaring twenties. While women were making their presence felt in traditionally male spaces like the office and the boardroom, they were also flocking to nightclubs and theaters to enjoy an evening out. And they weren’t wearing traditional feminine attire; they were instead opting for fashionable and bold looks that would become popularized in the coming years.
So it was little surprise that when Greta Garbo made her first appearance in German director Ernst Lubitsch’s ode to women, Rules of Marriage, she was wearing trousers and a man’s white shirt. These outfits aren’t exactly what we would today consider ‘traditional’ for a female protagonist, but Garbo’s assertive, and often breathtaking, performances in these films helped to turn her into one of the most recognizable and iconic figures in cinematic history.
As these films were made before World War II, it’s likely that many of Garbo’s contemporaries were wearing similar fashionable outfits. And they didn’t just appear in films: historical photographs show that women in the 1920s wore their hair cropped short, men’s clothing, and masculine attire. It was a truly unique time.
Garbo isn’t the only emblematic figure of the era to have worn trousers. Marjorie Merriweather Puccini, a 20-year-old New York debutante, played the title role in Puccini’s 1925 adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1862 novel, Nana. French fashion photographer Auguste Lindtman was inspired to create a series of portraits in the style of the French novel, and his photos of Marjorie Merriweather wearing men’s pants and a white shirt evoked the bold, yet elegant, style of the Jazz Age.
The 1920s weren’t just about breaking societal norms and barriers: it was also the time when our understanding of gender itself was transformed. Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed that, during puberty, boys begin to identify more closely with their father and gradually turn away from their mothers. This leads, in some instances, to an ambivalent attitude towards women, in which a man may admire a woman, yet fear and resist his father’s desires. Conversely, girls, Freud theorized, grow more attached to their mother and eventually come to see her as an embodiment of their “feminine” traits.
While Freud may have been right about the process generally, the outcome is something very different for those individuals who went through it. Thanks to a number of high profile scandals involving some of cinema’s most influential male figures, we now know that some men were more interested in women than in anything else. Hollywood’s original “alpha male”, William Harrison Scott, was allegedly driven to suicide by the disgrace of his many adulterous affairs, which his wife discovered and published in full detail. Austrian playboy and art collector Franz Unnasch claimed that his decadent lifestyle was merely a means to an end: in order to continue his debauchery, he needed a wife to provide him with an heir. When his first two marriages ended in divorce, he simply “retooled” and moved on to his next unsuspecting victim—which, presumably, is why he never bothered to divorce his last wife.
Scott and Unnasch both died relatively young, which is often taken to suggest that they were driven to self-destruction by their own excesses. But they were by no means exceptions to the rule. Alfred Hitchcock, whose films are often credited with pushing the boundaries of taste and decency, was known to be an incorrigible womanizer. And one of the most interesting cases involves one of cinema’s most legendary horror directors, James Whale. The son of a famous Scottish playwright, Whale began his career in Hollywood in the 1910s and worked steadily as a film director throughout the 1920s and 1930s. But it was his 1944 masterpiece, Frankenstein, which is often cited as one of the greatest horror films of all time, that established his fame among genre movie fans.
Dracula, with an endless stream of sex-crazed aristocrats swirling around its historic European settings, may well be the quintessential expression of the ‘Roaring Twenties’. This decadent era, which became a byword for excess, glamour, and a life lived at a faster pace, was captured in all its grandeur in George Barris’s 1926 classic, Seventh Heaven. Barris, who also designed costumes for several of the films he shot, was inspired to set the story in 1927 after a night of partying with Tallulah Bankhead and other luminaries of the silver screen. Seventh Heaven, like many of its fantastically dressed contemporaries, was a celebration of the jazz age.
Divorce, Separation, and Annulment
While many film stars of the day were still married in the 1920s, it was rarely a happy union. The most popular marriage breakup story of the era involves Hollywood’s first golden girl, Norma Shearer. Already a star thanks to her iconic performance in Cecil B. DeMille’s groundbreaking, female-centric 1925 film, The Flapper, Norma, whose stage name was an homage to San Francisco’s most famous mayor, Rose Marie, went on to become one of the most celebrated divas of the early sound era. As her marriage to director Howard Hawks came under increasing strain, she began seeing other men: first, silent film star Fred Scott, and then Cary Grant, a popular actor-stuntman with whom she had a passionate on-screen romance. When Grant’s wife discovered the affair and announced that she was filing for divorce, it was the end of Norma’s career and an ignominious end to one of film’s greatest love stories. The irony, of course, is that Norma’s on-screen persona, a flapper clad in short skirts and skimpy, colorful dresses, was a reflection of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ attitude to romance, sex, and gender. In the years that followed, she would make only a few rare appearances onscreen, most notably in a bizarre adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Claudius (1940) and as a caricature of herself in the 1942 film, Cheese Wives.
The Roaring Twenties were a heady mix of new freedoms for women and the roaring twenties. While women were making their presence felt in traditionally male spaces like the office and the boardroom, they were also flocking to nightclubs and theaters to enjoy an evening out.