In 1929, a group of Catholic priests sat down with some of their followers to draw up a series of guidelines for the motion picture industry. Throughout the 1920’s, the fast-living young women known as “flappers” had been part of Hollywood’s lexicon, bringing to the heartlands images of speakeasies, pocket flasks, short dresses and bee-stung lips, often dragging on -- horror of horrors! -- cigarettes.
As now, the motion picture industry both reflected and advanced its times. The term “flapper” came into popular use after 1920, when the silent “The Flapper” was released. Flapper-dom became a fad, then a style. From corsets to step-ins; from elaborate upswept hairdos and chaperones to boyish bobs and late-night parties; this was more than a look. It was upheaval, an aftereffect of the horrors of World War One, and of Prohibition. Denied legal liquor, young men and women drank bathtub gin, and they often did so in clandestine bars. It was the thumbing of the nose at convention which led to this louche emancipation.
Two silent films starring a very young and very uninhibited Joan Crawford -- Our Dancing Daughters and especially Our Modern Maidens -- were part of the output that led to the formation of the Production Code. In the latter movie, Joan Crawford plays a flapper who offers herself to an older diplomat to further the career of her rakish fiance, who is busy seducing her best friend at a wild party. Billie marries her rake, but leaves him for the diplomat when she finds out.
Not exactly Andy Hardy, is it? And, even more surprising, it was released by MGM, America’s family values studio. In the studio's early years, however, MGM’s creative mastermind was Irving Thalberg, a literate young man who got films such as this one made, even after he helped form the “Studio Relations Committee.” That committee was mostly ignored by the industry, and Thalberg’s MGM continued to release risque classics like Red Dust (which starred Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, marooned together in the tropics) and James Cagney’s The Public Enemy. But illnesses weakened Thalberg, who died in 1936, not long after the National League of Decency was formed. Finally, the Breen Office/Hays Code, which had to approve scripts before filming could start, came to power. Once it was fully implemented, even existing films had to be re-edited to conform to its policies. The Hays Code lasted roughly until the next era of cultural upheaval, the mid-Sixties.
The Caron scent “Tabac Blond” was released just before the flapper phenomenon hit the U.S. It was the opposite of the delicate floral perfumes, often based on violet, that had been in wide use during the days of corsets and buttoned shoes. I’ve recently obtained a bit vintage Tabac Blond, and it is not what I expected. It’s not dark, not masculine (although it probably seemed so in 1919) or bitter. It’s smooth and rich, more like a fine cognac than a riding crop. Generally, it is thought that the flappers used this scent and the later Habanita to hide the smell of tobacco smoke from their eagle-eyed mothers. That could be, but I doubt that it was the reason for the perfume’s invention! It was just one of those synergies that happen sometimes, and smelling it now is like stepping into a time machine.
“Our Modern Maidens” was released less than two months before the stock market crash of 1929. That event brought an end to the era of the convention-flouting flapper, although the last of the “Our” trilogy, “Our Blushing Brides” came out in 1930. (These flappers weren’t the careless debutantes of the earlier two movies, though. They were shopgirls on the hunt for rich men a la “How to Marry a Millionaire,” Depression version.)
And so these leather fragrances, most exempified by this one but with companions like Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, are monuments, wearable history. Like the pre-Code movies, there is something really emancipated, but reflective of reality, about them. They aren’t idealized, aspirational or even artificial -- in their vintage versions, anyway.
There is a scene in “Our Dancing Daughters” where Joan Crawford, seen only from the knees down, does an impromptu Charleston as she prances into her step-ins. Once she’s dressed (but just barely) the scene widens to include the only-in-Hollywood lavish art deco set that is her bedroom. Behind her is a window lined with glass shelves, on which are arranged many bottles of perfume. In this way, we’re shown something about her character. She’s well-off, true, but also discriminating; she has many choices. And unlike her friends, she generally knows what’s what.
It is that quality, that subtle gravitas, that defines vintage Tabac Blond to me.
Tabac Blond was released in 1919. Like all old perfumes, there have been changes, but the notes include bergamot and a bit of orange blossome, carnation, jasmine and iris, amber, musk, civet, benzoin and oakmoss. The perfumer, Ernest Daltroff, founded the House of Caron.
For a YouTube look at Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters (and the perfume shelf) go here.
The photo is a production still from Our Dancing Daughters, which I found on a Joan Crawford fan site.
“Our Dancing Daughters” and “Our Modern Maidens” were released on videocassette by MGM-UA Home Video in the early Nineties as part of a “Forbidden Hollywood” promotion, but are difficult to find now.