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Two Parisian jet setters, Andre (Albert Conti) and Diane (Pauline Frederick) find their plans for a whirlwind vacation interrupted by a baby. The "baby" is 19-year-old Valentine (Joan Crawford, in dyed blonde hair), Diane daughter whom she hasn't seen since her divorce from the girl's father. After their break-up, the courts awarded custody of Valentine to her conservative father. The officials considered Diane's expatriate party girl lifestyle so objectionable they forbid her from even seeing her daughter.
But all grown up and ready for action, Valentine takes a very different view of her chic mother's pleasure-seeking. Valentine is instantly smitten with Diane's flip, sophisticated, good time girl demeanor. Before long the well-matched mother and daughter are inseparable companions on the Paris party circuit. Over the course of director Nick Grinde's sparkling comedy/drama, Valentine is pursued by relentless, playboy drunkard Tony (Monroe Owsley) who promises everything but marriage.
One night Valentine and an inebriated Tony are in a car accident. As Valentine stumbles from the wreckage, she is rescued by a passing motorist, Robert Blake (Neil Hamilton), an Ivy League prince and Harvard football star from a long line of New England swells. The pair are instantly smitten. After their almost immediate engagement Valentine has only to prove herself to Robert's conservative, blue blood parents. That desire to make a good impression and hide her fun-loving past proves more difficult than expected when Valentine learns an ugly secret about her own mother.
Steeped in the cautionary moralism of Thirties Hollywood in which audiences were treated to visions of a glamorous, amoral, devil-may-care high society before matrimony and decency prevailed, This Modern Age (1931) depicts a world of liberated, marriage-fearful women like Diane and Valentine who provided audiences with a taste of how the other half lived. Co-scripted by MGM producer Irving Thalberg's sister Sylvia Thalberg, films like This Modern Age were meant to appeal to impressionable shop girls eager for a glimpse of upper-crust thrill-seeking and the expensive accoutrements of high living -- like Crawford's gorgeous Adrian gowns.
Crawford was the period's consummate Jazz Age baby, who appeared in numerous tales of girls gone wild like 1928's Our Dancing Daughters. F. Scott Fitzgerald reportedly called her the "best example of the flapper, the girl you see at smart nightclubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living." Not everyone was amused at such films and This Modern Age was included on a list of boycotted films compiled by the Catholic Church of Detroit.
One unique aspect of This Modern Age is seeing Joan Crawford as a blonde. According to Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell in Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography (The University Press of Kentucky), Joan "wore her hair that color because the actress who was originally to play the part of the mother, Marjorie Rambeau (who'd played her mother in Laughing Sinners, 1931) was a blonde. When Rambeau became ill, the part was recast with a brunette actress, Pauline Frederick, whom Joan greatly admired. Joan's scenes had already been shot, and the difference in hair color was not reason enough to reshoot them. Besides, there was no reason why a brunette mother couldn't have a blonde-haired daughter - or maybe she was just into peroxide."
The critics seemed to agree that Crawford was well-suited to playing the frivolous and thrill-seeking Valentine. The New York Times said of Crawford "she gives a better portrayal here than she has in any of her previous talking pictures...she succeeds in being quite convincing in cheery and serious moments." Other reviewers tended to see The Modern Age as a film with only limited appeal. Variety thought that Grinde's film would be "a shop girl's delight" but predicted that it would bore men. "There must have been a lot of shop girls, bless 'em," quipped Crawford after This Modern Age became a smash hit.
Director: Nick Grinde
Producer: Irving Thalberg
Screenplay: Sylvia Thalberg, Frank Butler, John Meehan based on the story "Girls Together" by Mildred Cram
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Joan Crawford (Valentine Winters), Pauline Frederick (Diane Winters), Neil Hamilton (Bob Blake), Monroe Owsley (Tony), Hobart Bosworth (Mr. Blake), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Blake), Albert Conti (Andre de Graignon).
by Felicia Feaster