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"Flaming Youth"

In the book Flaming Youth the character of Patricia Frentiss, the youngest of three daughters, finds she has a taste for fooling around with boys, flirting, drinking, going to petting parties. This was quite a different portrait of American youth then that which had had previously envisioned young girls as paragons of innocence. The portrait was never accurate, as women, even the most sheltered and protected by their families, are subject to human nature just like everyone else. However, there was little public appetite for acknowledgement of these realities. The ideal of the innocence of youth were more comforting.

Up to that point the feminine ideal was based upon the agrarian ideals of the American frontier and the “Cult of Domesticity” that sprang up in reaction to the industrial revolution. The ideal held that women had specific roles to adhere to: men went into the hard world to make a living while women stayed with the family. The maternal presence of Queen Victoria, mother of the Empire, had served to reinforce this ideal in the popular imagination until her death in 1901.

However, even before the end of the Great War women had been moving out of their parent's homes and taking jobs, becoming educated, and controlling their lives; this was an unprecedented shift in American Society. Industrialization had made it possible for women to hold jobs that did not require the strength of their male counterparts. Armies of newly-minted stenographers and typists descended upon the cities where they could make a living. The cities themselves made it easy for a woman to live alone and yet be able to acquire all the necessities of life.

By the 1920s, it was clear that women were not sticking to the expected ideals.

There were jobs available in big cities, comforts undreamed of on the farm. They smoked and drank and had sex. They wore makeup, discarded their restraining corsets, and enjoyed sinful jazz music. Their whole generation was going to hell in a hand basket, their dismayed elders exclaimed. Flappers were women of questionable morals and subject of both fascination and fear by the public.

It was this fascination that the book
 Flaming Youth had tapped into, and it dealt with subjects seldom spoken of in decent company. The book was very frank for its time, even if framed as the journal of an older man watching the turmoil of the Frentiss family with dismay and occasional humor. Patricia Frentiss finds herself in a teasing, flirting, and vexing romance with the former lover of her deceased mother. Her father keeps a floozy on the side who, much to the dismay of the Frentiss sisters turns out to be an intelligent individual. Patricia’s sisters both end up in loveless marriages, the middle sister marries a man she dislikes and continues to see her true love behind the husband’s back. When she finds herself pregnant, it is Patricia who arranges for her to terminate the pregnancy. It almost kills her, and then the despised husband unexpectedly commits a heroic act—saving a child from certain death, and is maimed and left crippled in the process—the sister is then unable to bring herself to leave him. Hot stuff, certainly not the staid Victorian material the public was used to.

The movie was being made fast on the heels of the publication of the book. Hollywood had long looked towards literature for its inspiration, and First National was no exception: two of First National’s acquisitions were had been The Huntress for $2500 and Painted People for $5000. And, of course, Flaming Youth. The idea that Colleen might play the child/woman Patricia Frentiss seemed counter-intuitive, but in fact it was a stroke of genius. Throughout the book, the character of Pat was always flirting with the adult pleasures, but remained at heart a good girl. In her fashion, Pat decided to marry (a trial marriage of a few decades, in which she reserved the right to leave should her husband not please her). The choice of Colleen to play the part of Pat would underscore for a potentially touchy audience that in spite of a few spectacular, youthful indiscretions, Pat was really just a wholesome girl waiting to land the right guy. It also gave the studio the cover of Colleen’s unimpeachable character. The advertising would be racy, titillating, but Colleen was, after all, still Colleen.