erik lundegaard


Thursday February 23, 2023

Movie Review: It (1927)


I got to see this on the big screen, with my wife Patricia and our friend Becky, surrounded by girls dressed as flappers. It was Silent Movie Monday at the Paramount in Seattle, and, despite the weather (nasty) and the pandemic (ongoing), the place was fairly packed. I pointed out one woman looking great in a rounded 1920s brimless hat. “What do you call those?” I asked Patricia. “Cloche,” she said. “They should bring those back,” I said.

Patricia went with me reluctantly. She’ll watch old movies but tends to draw the line at silents. But she enjoyed “It” and loved Clara Bow.

These days it’s more of a famous phrase than a famous movie—some people even mistakenly call the movie “The It Girl”—but what’s interesting is how the phrase became famous.

Reid first
In a sense, the true “It” Girl was Elinor Glyn, a matriarchal Brit and racy novelist of the day, who came to Hollywood in 1919, age 55, already famous or infamous for writing about female sexuality, and made deals to write articles for Hearst publications and screenplays for Famous Players-Lasky, which became Paramount.

In a 1935 Sunday Sun article on Glyn, they say she first used the term in the early 1920s for Wallace Reid, a silent movie heartthrob.

Glyn: You’re wonderful to look at. Besides, you have IT.
Reid: It? What?
Glyn: That’s the word. Don’t you see that it expresses everything? Either you have IT or you haven’t IT.
Reid: And I have, eh?

She then critiques his hair and shoes, which I love. Even the man who gave birth to IT needs fixing.

I think the term caught on because of its simplicity and vagueness, but that didn’t stop Glynn from constantly trying to define it—or at least hold off the very popular notion that it just meant sex appeal. A losing battle. Here’s IMDb’s current synopsis of the movie:

A salesgirl with plenty of “it” (sex appeal) pursues a handsome playboy.

Quick critique: Yes, she’s a salesgirl, yes, she has plenty of “it,” but “pursues” is iffy and “playboy” is totally off. If anything Cyrus T. Waltham (Antonio Moreno) is a wonk. He owns and runs the department store where Betty Lou (Bow) is a salesgirl. He’s almost always at his desk.

As for what “It” means, the movie keeps giving it a go. We get two intertitles that say about the same thing: IT is a quality which “draws all others with its magnetic force” or “attracts others of the opposite sex.” It should be “unselfconscious,” and “can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.” Then it’s defined in a Cosmopolitan magazine article by Glyn that another characters reads. And then Glyn herself shows up to hold forth in a grand manner.

Cyrus: Madame Glyn, we've been talking about your latest story. Just what is this “IT”?
Madame Glyn: Self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not—and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold. … If you have “IT,” you will win the girl you love.

Got it. Or IT. Or...

As with all love stories, the point is to keep the lovers apart for an extended period. So how do they do it here? The two are never hot for each other at the same time.

  • Betty Lou likes Cyrus but he doesn’t notice her.
  • Once he does, they go to Coney Island. But when he kisses her, she slaps him and calls him “one of those Minute Men. … The minute you meet a girl you think you can kiss her!”
  • Before he can apologize, we get that silent movie trope of welfare ladies trying to take babies away from poor mothers—in this case, Betty Lou’s friend, Molly (Priscilla Bonner). Betty Lou stands up to them, then lies about the baby, saying it’s hers. This gets back to Cyrus, who thinks she’s an unwed mother, and he shunts her to the side.
  • When she finds out why she’s shunted to the side, she gets angry. She decides she’s going to get him to propose so she can laugh in his face. Helluva leap. But she makes it happen when she finagles a spot on a weeklong party aboard his yacht.

In the final reel, after a dump in the drink, they both like each other at the same time and we get our happy ending.

Super duper
Watching, I kept remembering Chico Marx flirting with a manicurist in 1931’s “Monkey Business.” “You’ve got IT,” he tells her. When she begins to thank him, he adds, “And you can keep it.”

Bow is great in this. I think the worst scenes are when she tries to convey “It” and gets a little self-conscious; the best scenes are when she’s just feisty. Anyway, it made her a star. Moreno as Cyrus is also good, less self-conscious than Bow but about 20 pounds from peak IT.

William Austin plays “Monty” Montgomery, Cyrus’ friend, who first alerts Cyrus to Glyn’s Cosmo article. He’s comic relief—pursuing Betty Lou but losing out. He also seems either terribly British or terribly gay. There’s a great early scene where he looks himself over in the mirror and declares, “Old fruit, you’ve got IT.” Yes, you do, Old fruit. Fun fact: Austin would wind up as the first cinematic Alfred in the 1943 movie serial “Batman.” In fact, he’s the reason Alfred is thin. Before, the character was fairly portly, but the comic wanted to correspond to the film so they put him on a diet. It’s one of Austin’s last roles. He stopped making movies in 1947, lived until 1975.

Another fun fact: The reporter who breaks the Betty Lou vs. the welfare ladies story is pre-stardom Gary Cooper. He would define IT for the next two decades but isn't even part of the IT discussion here. It’s his last uncredited role.

Posted at 02:35 PM on Thursday February 23, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - Silent