(7/10) This 1923 film about a woman who undergoes medical treatment to become thirty years younger is a steadily paced and calmly directed mystery drama as well as a poignant, but subtle, social commentary on the Roaring Twenties, sexual liberation and feminism. Not necessarily a favourite among sci-fi fans, but is worth checking out because of the presence of flapper legend Clara Bow.
Black Oxen. 1923, USA. Directed by Frank Lloyd. Written by Frank Lloyd and Mary O’Hara, based on Gertrude Atherton’s novel of the same name. Starring: Corinne Griffith, Conway Tearle, Clara Bow, Alan Hale. Produced by Frank Lloyd. IMDb score: 6.4. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
More a melodrama than a sci-fi film, this 1923 entry into the film canon is nonetheless worthy of mention, since it is probably the first full length feature to describe rejuvenation by way of science. It is also a beautiful time capsule from the Roaring Twenties – not only a display window for the liberal, sexual and optimistic atmosphere, but also a critical look on it. This film is not entirely complete, one reel is missing, but I still feel confident enough to rate it.
The Roaring Twenties was an interesting time in American history wedged in between WWI and The Great Depression. The economic upswing, urbanisation and scientific and technological advances created an American urban society where hedonism, freedom and optimism were championed. Women were allowed to vote, which further emboldened the feminist movement. Arise the flapper – the young, smoking, drinking, smart-mouthed, jazz-listening, sexually liberal woman, dressed in tight knee-high dresses and sporting boyish bowler haircuts. Beauty, youth and sex was all the rage. But what happens when youth and beauty fades, and all you have to show for it is an empty bed a a major hangover? That is what author Gertrude Atherton explored in her best-selling semi-autobiographical novel Black Oxen, made into a film the next year.
The nominal protagonist in the film is the writer Lee Clavering (played by Conway Tearle), in his early middle-age, and still single. But the real focal point in the film is Mary Ogden (Corinne Griffith), a young, stunningly beautiful woman who appears in Manhattan out of the blue. Old friends and lovers are gobsmacked. Mary Ogden moved to Austria years ago and married a rich aristocrat, and became a key player in Austrian politics. But Mary is now 58 years old, and when last seen she was ”a feeble old lady”. She tells them she is the old Mary’s niece, but people are sceptical – Mary Ogden had no niece.
Unbeknownst to them, she is the original Mary Ogden, who has undergone a medical procedure to make her 30 years younger. Lee falls in love with Mary, who slowly warms to him, and they prepare to get married. But Lee is all but blind to the young flapper Janet Oglethorpe, a feisty, spirited girl (and oh so beautiful!) who is madly in love with him. She is played by Clara Bow, who became the first and foremost example of the flapper in the movies, and one of the most drooled over women of the 1920’s.
Mary Ogden reveals her secret to all her friends and her lover about two thirds into the film, and that is really when the movie gets interesting. Most of her old friends are fascinated by this new medical procedure, and the young ones delight in the possibility of staying forever young. But it is also here the film gets a little hypocritical. Mary explains that she underwent the procedure to be able to prolong her work for the good Austria, but when confronted by an old friend she is absolutely horrified to be accused of having ulterior motives. That – gasp – she might want to be young and beautiful and have steamy sex with hot young men! Oh the horror! I would never … But after this confrontation she nevertheless starts thinking the wedding over, and the final straw is when an old Austrian suitor pays a visit and basically says ”For god’s sake woman, you’re 58 years old! Do you really think you wanna live like you were in college again?” She sees her folly and heads back to Austria, while Lee finds happiness with Janet the flapper. Everybody’s happy.
In fact, this is quite a nice little philosophical piece concerning the Roaring Twenties and the women’s liberation at the time (which would suffer a drawback in 1930 with the depression). The film decidedly sides with the new societal and sexual freedoms of the young women, but contrasts it effectively with the old ladies who used to be friends with Mary Ogden. They seem to be generally positive about women’s liberation, but flabbergasted by the vulgarity and the materialism of the time. As a bridge between the old and the young generations stands the rejuvenated Mary Ogden – young and beautiful, but at heart a woman of the old school. At a dinner party a young woman muses over the fact that she may in the future be fighting over boyfriends with her grandmother. To which Mary answers, ”Yes, but maybe your grandmother might be able to teach you some manners as well”.
The title of Gertrude Atherton’s novel is drawn from the W.B. Yeats’ verse drama The Countless Kathleen: “The years like Great Black Oxen tread the world/ And God the herdsman goads them on behind.” This is telling: it is not the story of a young woman, but of an old one. The Roaring Twenties was the decade of the young. But the best selling novel of 1923 depicting it, was written by a 65-year old woman. Gertrude Atherton was a prolific writer, feminist, social activist and chairman of PEN San Fransisco, which was also the city where her novel was set. She stated many times that she believed in complete equality for men and women, but she also knew that it would not come without a great price for those who demanded it. And she certainly knew it would not come through dancing to jazz and having sex alone.
In a way she rejoiced for the young women who were now able to do things she could only have dreamed of as a 20-year old. But she was also harshly critical of the emphasis on youth and beauty. In a way she was prophetic when she foresaw that all this frivolity would have a backlash. In the end of 1929 came the Wall Street crash, and with it the Great Depression. With the depression, social attitudes also changed. Much of the liberal consensus of women’s role in society, acceptance of homosexuality and an improvements of African-American rights were rolled back. Not least was this noted in Hollywood, where the famous Hays Code was introduced in 1930, that basically removed almost anything that couldn’t be said or shown in church from films.
All of this is not present in the movie Black Oxen, but rather in the subtext. The film also drags in places where it feels a bit too much like a commonplace romantic melodrama, but as a whole it is quite a delight to watch in its calm and steady pacing. It is traditionally filmed, and neither camera work nor editing is exceptionally good nor bad. The comedy is sometimes forced. Both Corinne Griffith and Conway Tearle inhabit their roles believably but without shining. Kate Lester is fabulous as the sour-faced Jane Oglethorpe, Matriarch of Manhattan and grandmother of Janet. But the real draw in this film is the tomboyish, charismatic, exhilarating phenomenon that is Clara Bow. The biggest flaw of the film is perhaps that it is absolutely impossible to believe that Conway Tearle would not fall head over heals in love with the force of nature that is Clara Bow. I know I did.
This was Clara Bow’s fifth film, and she had already raised many an eyebrow in Hollywood, where she became a minor star after the release of her second film, Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), where she plays a rebellious girl who wants to become a whaler like her grandfather, something which is not well received by the family. Later films such as It (which made her ”The It-Girl” in the press), Cecil B. DeMille’s The Runaway, Victor Fleming’s Mantrap, the Oscar-winning Wings and Dorothy Arzner’s The Wild Party made her one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, and perhaps the biggest sex symbol of the Roaring Twenties. She was slandered by the conservative press, and was accused for attacking American moral. There were persistent rumours about promiscuity, lesbianism, incest, bestiality, drug abuse and alcoholism. At one time a reporter tried to blackmail her, and ended up in jail for eight years. Her legacy lives on in the animated character Betty Boop, who was partly designed on Clara Bow.
This film is so studded with A-list actors, unlike most of the sci-fi:s at the time, that there really is no point in going over them all. But a few short mentions, since I can’t resist. In one of the roles we see Alan Hale – not the biggest star name of the era, but if you name a Hollywood star of the silent era, I can guarantee that Hale has worked with him or her at some point. He was the designated sidekick in a lot of swashbucklers, historical dramas and adventure films. He famously played Little John in both the 1922 Robin Hood adaptation with Douglas Fairbanks, and the 1938 version with Erroll Flynn – as well as in the less known 1950 version with John Derek as Robert of Locksley.
Among his co-workers are: James Cagney, Lon Chaney, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan, Basil Rathbone, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, Claude Rains, Gary Cooper, Hedy Lamarr, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Viveca Lindfors and many others.
Veteran actor Tom Ricket (in a bit part) played a small role as a townsman in the 1938 horror classic Son of Frankenstein – it turned out to be his last role. Director Frank Lloyd was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood, even though he is maybe not as well remembered as some of his contemporaries. He was one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and its president 1934-35. He is unique to have been nominated for an Oscar for three different films in a year – one was a silent film, the second a part-talkie, and the third a full-talkie. He won the Oscar that year, 1929, for the silent one, The Divine Lady, for best direction. He received a further Oscar for 1933’s Cavalcade, and got another nomination for his best known film, The Mutiny on the Bounty, from 1935. Art director Stephen Gossoon was nominated for an Oscar five times, and won in 1935 with Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon.
The theme of rejuvenation is one of the oldest in fairy-tales and mythology, from Medea’s cauldron of rejuvenation to the magic apples of Idun in Norse mythology. What scientists are working on today with stem cell research, the rich and mighty have done for centuries by way of alchemy, sacrifice, black magic or exploration. Alchemists sought the sages Philosophers’ Stone, nobles like Elisabeth Báthory would bathe in the blood of virgins or sleep with children to maintain their youth, and Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León even sailed to Florida to find the fountain of youth.
In literature, rejuvenation was mainly connected with fairy-tales and myth, and played little role in early proto-sci-fi, that was often much more interested in robots, the stars and the planets, time travel and later resurrection and suspended animation. The theme didn’t really enter modern literature until around 1900, perhaps best represented by Jack London’s 1899 short story The Rejuvenation of Major Rathbone, which is one of the first works to feature a scientifically produced rejuvenation potion.
Rejuvenation fiction was spurred on by new discoveries both about the function and importance of glands in mammals, and the deeper and more wide-spread understanding of radiation, such as x-rays. A highly popular subject of conversation – perhaps not at the dinner table – was scientist Serge Voronoff’s idea of rejuvenating men by transplanting parts of ape testicles onto their own – a theory that he put in practice and was applauded for by the medical society – thousands of men thought they became rejuvenated with monkey power. Later research concluded that any rejuvenation that had taken place was due to the placebo effect, and Voronoff was discredited, but during the twenties he was in full swing, inspiring both horror stories and satires. Voronoff also tried transplanting monkey ovaries in women, and the reverse, transplanting human ovaries in apes, and inseminating them with human sperm. If you’re looking for the origins of the ape man trope, look no further.
All this is to say that Gertrude Atherton’s novel Black Oxen was actually one of the very first works of fiction to explore rejuvenation as a medical procedure when it was released in 1923. Since the actual nature of the procedure isn’t really relevant to the story, the film wisely leaves the technical explanations for the audience to imagine, and simply speaks of “a medical procedure” that can only be performed on women. But in fact Atherton describes that the procedure includes x-raying the endocrine glands, which rejuvenates women but not men. Scandalous!
Black Oxen. 1923, USA. Directed by Frank Lloyd. Written by Frank Lloyd and Mary O’Hara, based on Gertrude Atherton’s novel of the same name. Starring: Corinne Griffith, Conway Tearle, Clara Bow, Alan Hale, Tom Ricketts, Kate Lester, Claire McDowell, Tom Guise, Otto Lederer, Carmelita Geraghty, Lincoln Stedman. Cinematography: Norbert Brodine. Art direction: Stephen Gossoon. Produced by Frank Lloyd for AFIP.