Social stereotypes come from somewhere: they’re not plucked out of the ether. They are constructed by real people, and they feed real social hungers. The “flapper” in the 1920s was typically thin, sexually permissive, verbally raucous, and shingled. The media (particularly the cinema, the “essential social habit of the age”) was preoccupied with the flapper as the initiator of change, and as a revolutionary figure who challenged the traditions of female deference.
British cinema in the late 1920s was in a situation of turmoil. It was often referred to as the “Klondyke era” in which work arrangements were informal, genres were unstable and star popularity was volatile. With the coming of sound in 1928, a new sort of entrepreneur arrived in the cinema, who (because he could combine the roles of producer and director), had a lot of power. One such was Henry Williams. Large and unctuous, he tended to favour female stars who would reward his favouritism by granting him sexual access. But with one, he met his match.
She was called Chili Butcher. She was dark and had very curly hair, and several critics insisted in the parlance of the time (and I quote) that she had “a touch of the tar-brush”. Chili was a great actress, and managed to deal with the demands of silent cinema and early sound, lending a vitality and bravura quality to all her roles. Her body language was fluid and inventive, and she portrayed women who could think as well as feel.
She caught the eye of Henry Williams. Hitherto, all her roles had been exotic, with long skirts, scarves and frills. But Williams wanted her to play flappers, and offered her several roles: “I want to see your legs in those short skirts.” She resisted, and pushed his hands away, but since he had put her under contract, she had to fake compliance. Eventually, he sent a flapper evening dress to her dressing room, telling her to be on set at 6 am the next day: she should be prepared to take the lead in Speakeasy Sal and to fuck him afterwards. The dress arrived: rustling, glinting, it slid out of the paper. It came to mid-thigh, it had a long string of pearls to go with it, and a bandeau with a feather. She felt she looked silly in it.
The morning dawned and she arrived on set with a dressing-gown covering her outfit. The clapper sounded, “Miss Butcher to the stage” was called. She walked up and slipped out of her dressing gown. A gasp of horror ran through the assembled technicians, including the portly Williams. She was meant to appear as the agent of modernism, the flapper with her legs akimbo. But Chili had dressed as a Spanish dancer in black and red, with a swirling shawl and a man’s hat. She stepped forward and drew out a red rose from her pocket, put it between her teeth, and began to dance the Flamenco. Only a few steps though, as Williams yelled “CUT! CUT!” with all his might. In front of everyone, he said to Chili: “from now on, you are going to find it very difficult.”
And so she did. She could only get small roles after that, and she fell into anonymity. As she herself said in her autobiography, hers was “a cautionary little tale which demonstrated what happened to little actresses when they refuse to reward their mentors.” Williams courted other, more compliant actresses after that, and made starring vehicles for them.
But Chili had had her moment, and her “cautionary tale” reminds us that how women look, and what women wear, and how women comport themselves, was as much of a minefield in the 1920s as it is today. She would not be his flapper, no not she. She would be her own swirling dancer, whatever the cost.