Cast & Crew
Seven young English aviators are billeted at the Berthelot farm near the French front. One of the flyers, Philip Blythe, falls in love with farmer Berthelot's daughter, Jeannie, and on the morning before a dangerous mission declares his love for her. Philip is shot down, and Jeannie helps an ambulance crew to extricate his apparently lifeless body from the wrecked plane. In the following weeks, Jeannie searches in vain in all of the military army hospitals for Philip. She does encounter Philip's father, who, disapproving of her lowly origins, falsely informs her that Philip has died. In farewell, Jeannie sends a bouquet of lilacs to his room, and Philip, recognizing the flowers as her gift, painfully drags himself to his window in time to call her back to him.
L. Wolfe Gilbert
Lilac Time -
Moore was at the height of her career when she starred in Lilac Time, reportedly earning $12,500 per week at her studio First National Pictures. She received 15,000 fan letters weekly and was declared the most popular actress by Exhibitor's Herald. Most importantly, she had a measure of control over her films and career via her husband, producer John McCormick.
Her rise to this level of stardom began in 1923 with her starring role in Flaming Youth, a film designed to capitalize on the flapper craze. Moore desperately wanted the role in order to distinguish herself from Mary Pickford with whom she was often compared. She cut her hair into a jaunty bob and reinvented herself as one of those rebellious young women who were challenging social conventions. Moore differed from other flappers such as Clara Bow and Louise Brooks because of her effervescent personality. She was better suited for comedies in which her bubbly characters learned the error of their wild ways in the end. The success of her flapper films led to a lucrative contract with First National Pictures as well as marriage to McCormick, the producer of Flaming Youth.
Though McCormick insisted that all of Moore's characters exhibit her trademark vivaciousness and energy, her role in Lilac Time deviated from the flapper archetype. She played a young French woman named Jeannine, who lives with her aunt on a farm in rural Nailly-les-Boureas during World War I. When the farm becomes the headquarters for Britain's Royal Forces Flying Corps, Jeannine and her aunt stay on to take care of the pilots. Flying ace Philip Blythe, played by Gary Cooper, arrives to find a greasy-faced Jeannine in the way of his smooth landing. He mistakes her for a young boy and chides her for being in the way, setting the two on the rocky path to true love. Compared to her urban flappers, Jeannine is naïve and unsophisticated, though she retains Moore's spunk and spark.
Moore was one of Hollywood's biggest stars with clout and creative control, while Cooper was at the beginning of his career. According to Moore's biographer Jeff Codori, she first saw the young actor in a Western while she was attending the movies on vacation with a friend. She decided Cooper would be ideal as her leading man in Lilac Time, which was in pre-production. Stories of heroic pilots during WWI were popular in the mid-1920s and Cooper had already costarred in Wings (1927). Lilac Time cemented his image as the strong, masculine leading man with a sensitive, quiet side, which appealed to both male and female fans.
Given Moore's star power, First National Pictures expected the film to be a major success. In an era when $250,000 was the typical budget for a prestige picture, Lilac Time cost a cool million. The film had the budget to finesse the smallest details for the sake of authenticity. Director George Fitzmaurice was inspired to hire Frenchmen to play the French soldiers who were merely background extras, and Moore learned most of her lines in French, delivering them phonetically so that her conversation scenes looked authentic. While interiors were shot in the studio back in Hollywood, exteriors and aerial footage were shot on location on a 1,260-acre barley ranch in Orange County. A working airfield was constructed on the ranch, along with hangars, a machine shop and a hospital set. Tents were erected for bathroom facilities, a mess hall and living quarters for the cast and crew. Most impressive was the small French village that was blown up during the final sequence when the Germans invade.
The aerial stunts were performed by some 20 World War I pilots, who destroyed seven planes in the process. The most well-known pilot was Dick Grace, who had worked on Wings. His specialty was bringing a plane down to look like a crash, though his talent did not come without a price. Despite McCormick's claim that there were no injuries during production, Grace suffered a rib separation, contusions, hand fractures and neck-muscle injuries.
While Lilac Time was in pre-production, The Jazz Singer (1927) was released, turning the industry on its collective ear. First National Pictures began looking for a film that was a good candidate for sync-sound dialogue. The studio wanted Lilac Time to be its first talkie, but McCormick told Moore to decline. He thought talking films were little more than a novelty and did not want this prestigious production to fall in that category. Instead, the studio opted to release it with a synchronized soundtrack of music and sound effects. A crew recorded airplane-engine noises and machine-gun sounds, while an orchestra recorded the music. The sound system adopted by First National Pictures was Firnatone, which was a sound-on-disc system.
As if this era was not tumultuous enough with the coming of sound, First National Pictures was experiencing growing pains. The studio's chief executive was pushed out in favor of Joseph Kennedy. Kennedy preferred Photophone, which was a sound-on-film system. Kennedy scrapped the Firnatone sound and replaced it with a Photophone version. During the film's gala premiere, the sound strip broke three times, while the extra-loud plane noises blew audiences out of their seats. (Kennedy quit shortly thereafter, and Warner Bros. bought controlling interest in First National Pictures.)
The temporary sound issues did not prevent Lilac Time from becoming a major box-office success. It was widely released in a silent version, because the majority of theaters were not yet wired for sync sound in 1928. Lilac Time broke box-office records in several cities, where additional morning matinees were added.
By the time the film had run its course in the theaters, the industry began to re-invent itself. Conversion to sound was inevitable, and eventually competing systems were abandoned in favor of the universal adoption of a sound-on-film system controlled by Western Electric. Some actors, including Gary Cooper, survived the coming of sound and went on to become the biggest stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, while others were unsuccessful in sustaining their stardom. Moore divorced McCormick, remarried and took a four-year break from Hollywood. She eventually returned but was unable to establish a star image suitable for the sound era. Moore retired from the industry in 1934 but found personal satisfaction in her charity work.
Producer: John McCormick for First National Pictures
Director: George Fitzmaurice
Screenplay: Carey Wilson, adapted by Willis Goldbeck from a play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Editor: Alexander Hall
Art Direction: Horace Jackson
Flying Stunt Commander: Dick Grace
Cast: Jeannine Berthelot (Colleen Moore), Captain Philip Blythe (Gary Cooper), General Blythe (Burr McIntosh), Madame Berthelot (Eugenie Besserer), Lady Iris (Kathryn McGuire), Capt. Russell (Cleve Moore), The Unlucky One (Arthur Lake), The Kid (Jack Stoney), Sergeant Hawkins (George Cooper), Corporal Smithie (Edward Dillon), Mayor (Emile Chautard), The Enemy Ace (Edward Clayton)
1928 Black & White 80 mins.
By Susan Doll
Lilac Time -
A silent version of the film, without the talking sequence and score, was also released.