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Why Be Good?
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by Jay Seaver

"Colleen Moore didn't need to be bad to be great."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL: A modem viewer might, at times, find himself or herself winging hands while watching "Why Be Good?", feeling like the filmmakers were so close to being on the right track with its message. I'd remind those folks that it was probably fairly progressive for 1929, and that focusing on the moment or two when it isn't means missing out on all the things that make it a charming and funny romantic comedy.

It wastes little time introducing us to its two halves. First up is Winthrop Peabody Jr. (Neil Hamilton), the dashing scion of a millionaire department store owner (Edward Martindel), having one last blast as a free man before being employed the next day. Then there's Pert Kelly (Colleen Moore), an aptly-named flapper who can out-Charleston anybody on the dance floor and isn't exactly shy off it. They met at a nightclub called "The Boiler" and hit it off, making a date for the next night, but that's before a tardy Pert gets called in to see the new personnel manager at work the next morning, creating a sticky situation that Winthrop Sr. only makes worse.

We may see Neil Hamilton first, but there is never much doubt that this is Colleen Moore's movie. She spent a fair chunk of her career playing characters like Pert Kelly, and if it was generally with the same sort of energy she brings to this one, it must have been an enjoyable run. Pert has a winning confidence and enthusiasm when she's out on the town, sure, but it transforms rather than disappears when she's at work or arguing with her father. Moore makes silent dialogue "sound" snappy by how she moves when delivering it, and she makes the most of an expressive face, especially when Pert's impulsiveness has her s seeming to switch directions quickly. She's naturally very funny, and doesn't have to change things up much when the writers give her material that they want the audience to take seriously.

That would mean a bit less if the cast around her wasn't doing their jobs nearly as well, but it is actually a very enjoyable ensemble. Neil Hamilton is not necessarily the source of many jokes but he reacts to them well, whether via a belly-laugh when Winthrop's buddies get themselves in trouble or keeping up with Moore at her most manic. Edward Martindel proves a nice surprise as his father, initially looking the stern patriarch before showing a cheerier side, even if there is a bit of prejudice underneath. That characterization is kind of split for Pert's parents, with John St. Polis a gruff but not unloving father, while Bodil Rosing makes a lot of scenes a little better as Ma Kelly, not-so-secretly living vicariously through her daughter's adventures.

Those are a bit racy, at least in some cuts of this pre-code film (local censors tended to cut a fair amount of background detail from the Boiler sequence, for instance). The gag, of course, is that Pert isn't the bad girl that everyone assumes she is, and that can be a weird line for writer Carey Wilson and director William A. Seiter to worry about crossing at times. Okay, sure, Pert's not going to drink (Prohibition was still in effect, after all), though she'll pretend to. She does wind up making both "what is so wrong with going out and having some fun?" and "you men aren't interested unless we look wild but God forbid we actually are!" speeches, and to a certain extent, that it ultimately comes down to her actually being a "good girl" rather than men just accepting women for what they are is probably a bit two-faced in 1929, let alone eighty-five years later.

It leads to a bit of a rushed ending, too, although a satisfying one, because even if the movie doesn't quite make the point one might want it to make, it has presented the audience with a quite likable pair in Pert & Winthrop, and they are still funny, charming, and impulsive right up to the end. That the whole movie is like that, finding ways to create friction between its lead pair in a way that keeps things up in the air without pushing them too far from the expected result. It's a quick-moving film because that's the pace Moore sets, and it works pretty well that way.

And, hey, get the right audience, and you'll still here people whooping it up a bit when Pert tells the guys holding her to a double standard off; the world hasn't changed so much since then that people won't find this familiar. Most importantly, though, it holds up in terms of being an entertaining and occasionally rowdy romantic comedy.

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originally posted: 06/08/15 14:10:57
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  DVD: 12-Nov-2014



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