Family & Companions
Silent screen star Colleen Moore became recognized as one of the premier movie flappers of the day, thanks to her Dutch bob hairstyle, daringly short skirts and vibrant performance in "Flaming Youth" (1923). However, because all of her films were shot in black and white, moviegoers were not entirely aware of the elfin actress' most distinctive feature: she possessed one blue eye and one brown eye. Moore began her career in a diverse array of pictures for several short-lived companies before attaining notoriety at First National Films, which produced her biggest hits. At the height of her fame, Moore was one of the highest paid performers in Hollywood, but unlike later flapper icons Clara Bow and Louise Brooks, she was the "safe" one who briefly flirted with danger, but ultimately came back home. Moore stopped making movies before she had even reached middle-age and later generations probably remembered her more for the incredibly elaborate dollhouse she had commissioned during the late 1920s, which went on to tour the United States, delighting children and collectors. Although she retired from the screen over 50 years before she died, Moore earned herself a place in cinematic and cultural lore for her flapper image, which was a potent symbol of the Roaring Twenties and what that new era of societal change represented for the women of America.
Colleen Moore was born Kathleen Morrison on Aug. 19, 1899 in Port Huron, MI. From a very young age, she was obsessed with movies and yearned to become an actress, using a discarded piano crate as a makeshift stage for her own little stock company of fellow children. The response she received from putting on various short performances in her backyard made Moore even more passionate about acting. Thanks to a well-connected relative who was owed a favor by renowned director D.W. Griffith, Moore was invited to Hollywood at age 15 and arrived with her ever-protective grandmother in tow. She made her film debut with a small part in "The Bad Boy" (1917) and had supporting assignments in several other features before getting her first lead role as "Little Orphan Annie" (1918). She received positive notice from critics and worked steadily in comedies, dramas, adventures and Westerns. In 1922, she was announced as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, a distinction given by that organization to actresses felt to be on the verge of prominence.
Their faith in Moore would be proven spot-on the following year when she was cast in the drama, "Flaming Youth" (1923), about a teenage girl eager to experience an uninhibited lifestyle. While she does indeed take a walk on the wild side, there is no tragedy in the end as Moore learns the error of her ways and decides to lead a more respectable life. While not the first actress to play such a role, Moore's distinctive boyish hairstyle and above-the-knee skirt personified the era's ideal of a flapper, the wild new breed of young woman challenging social confines. With the climatic moral square-up in place to help deflect widespread censure, "Flaming Youth" (which now only exists in a one-reel fragment) turned into a significant box office success, and Moore married the film's producer, John McCormick. Her subsequent pictures, including "The Perfect Flapper" (1924), "Twinkletoes" (1926) and "Naughty but Nice (1927), also resonated with viewers, allowing the actress to negotiate an extremely lucrative contract with First National Films. Now earning $12,500 per week and with a line of products bearing her name, Moore was an uncommonly shrewd investor and quickly accumulated a sizeable bank account that allowed her to weather the Great Depression and live in comfort during her golden years. Moore's marriage to McCormick - who developed a pronounced drinking problem and became abusive to her - eventually crumbled and they divorced in 1930.
She was still a box office attraction at the end of the silent era, and successfully transitioned into sound features, but Moore's career was not helped by the decision to take a four-year hiatus from movies to spend time with her next husband, a union that would also be short-lived. This diluting of her public image was compounded by the fact that aside from Preston Sturges' well-regarded drama "The Power and the Glory" (1933), the films were rather forgettable and did only modest business. Looking to move away from the sort of light comedies that brought her fame and further demonstrate her ability with dramatic roles, Moore took on the part of Hester Prynne, the beleaguered heroine of "The Scarlet Letter" (1934). While the independently produced adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel was quite faithful to its source, the film was made quickly and fairly cheaply and performed below expectations. In the wake of this disappointment and tired of the many long and arduous days she had spent on sets for nearly two decades, Moore decided to retire from film.
Even more so than most little girls, Moore had been an ardent admirer of dolls and at the height of her success in 1928, she threw herself into the construction of an eight-foot-tall dollhouse that she hoped would be the ultimate representation of a fairytale fantasy castle. A remarkable piece of craftsmanship, the structure was designed by noted artisans (including some movie industry personnel), featured genuine rubies, emeralds and diamonds in segments, and was in construction for seven years. By the time of its completion, the dollhouse - which consisted of 200 separate pieces and over 2,000 miniature components - had cost almost a half million dollars and was 81 square feet in size. Moore sent it out on a four year tour of major department stores throughout the country as a way of raising money for needy children, collecting $650,000 for various charities.
Starting in 1949, Moore's dollhouse was on display at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and in 1976, she officially donated it to the institution, where it remained a major tourist attraction. The actress was awarded a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 and her biography, Silent Star, hit stores in 1968, with Moore going on a 50-city promotional tour in support. She also penned How Women Can Make Money in the Stock Market the following year and a book celebrating her famous creation, Colleen Moore's Doll House, was published in 1979. Moore was also one of the Golden Age stars interviewed in the British documentary miniseries "Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film" (1980). Unfortunately, a significant number of her more than 60 films were lost as the nitrate film stock utilized during that period was not properly preserved and the negatives and prints disintegrated. Moore died of cancer on Jan. 25, 1988.
By John Charles