(Click here for information on the 2012 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As each of the titles for 2012 have a filmed adaptation, this year we will also be looking at each movie version as well. This week, the July selection, Elinor Glyn’s It.)
Really, everything that can be said about Elinor Glyn and It (both concept and the novel that is a “character study” of the concept) was said by Dorothy Parker upon its publication 85 years ago. It, the concept, was described by Madame Glyn throughout the years in many puzzling and sometimes contradictory ways. In her introduction, she sums it up as “the fortunate possessor must have that strange magnetism which attracts both sexes” (she would later complain about writers vulgarizing the concept into merely “sex appeal”).
Personally, I think Oscar Hammerstein said it best: “It’s that improper fraction/ of vague attraction/ that gets the action.”
It, the novel, deals with self-made Millionaire John Gaunt and idly rich ice queen Ava Cleveland. There are lots of smoldering gazes and mystical vibrations. There is Ava’s brother Larry, who embezzles money to support his opium habit, forcing Ava to Give Herself Over To Be Wholly Possessed by Millionaire John Gaunt. There is also an inscrutable Chinese man-servant that Millionaire John Gaunt gets to stalk Ava around Brooklyn, so he can better learn how to Fully Master Her.
In other words, it is exactly the sort of thing that Marian Paroo would rightly keep out of the River City Public Library. “Turgid” was the word that most often came to mind during the 90 minutes I spent reading it.
It, the movie, has only the most tenuous connection to the novel. For one thing, it stars Clara Bow, the least Ava Cleveland-ish actress of her generation (the heroine is also given the much more proletarian name of Betty Lou). The plot: Betty Lou wants to win the affections of her boss at the department store where she works. 72 minutes later she does exactly that.
The nominal connection is that every character in the movie, from department store heir Cyrus Waltham, Jr. to his playboy buddy Monty, to his snooty society girlfriend Adela are all reading Elinor Glyn’s serialized It in Cosmopolitan Magazine (Yes, “47 New Sex Tricks To Try Tonight!” Cosmo.)
Betty Lou gets a date with Monty, who is a chump, but a good-natured chump (“Him? He couldn’t even give birth to a suspicion!”), and she manipulates things so they show up for dinner at the Ritz at the same time as Cyrus Jr. and Adela. Happily for everyone, Elinor Glyn (as herself) is also dining at the Ritz that evening and stops by the table to explain (at length) what this “It” is all about.
Once Betty Lou gets Cyrus Jr. to notice her, he is quite taken and the next night they go and party like Common People at Coney Island:
Despite using Monty to help her try and steal another girl’s fiancé, Betty Lou is really a nice girl: we learn that she is sheltering her co-worker Molly, an unwed mother, and baby Toodles at her apartment. When the uptight Welfare Ladies come to stick their noses in Molly’s business, Betty Lou claims the baby is hers, and throws them out. Unfortunately, this leads to a misunderstanding, because Monty is hanging out on her front stoop with a tabloid reporter, who writes a valiant account of Betty Lou’s defense of “her” child.
When Cyrus Jr. reads the news, he makes Betty Lou a cash offer to be his mistress, since she is a ruined woman and everything. Taking offense, Betty Lou tells him off and then quits.
Monty comes to the rescue, bringing many fruit baskets to the now-impoverished Betty Lou and Molly, and agrees to be roped into a plan to get revenge on Cyrus Jr. for being judgey and presumptuous, by taking Betty Lou to Cyrus Jr.’s yachting party IN DISGUISE. (“She is positively top heavy with IT!”) Adela cannot sneer hard enough to express her displeasure at this interloper.
Betty Lou plans to make Cyrus Jr. inflamed with passion and propose to her, at which point she will reject him. She’s a fast worker: it takes about 12 hours for this plan to come to fruition. She immediately regrets it, however: it turns out she’s stuck on the big dope after all.
And then Cyrus Jr. leaves Monty in charge of the yacht, which he immediately crashes into another boat, sending Betty Lou and Adela overboard, just as they were about to start scratching each other’s eyes out. Betty Lou rescues Adela from drowning and then announces that she is going to swim back to Brooklyn. Because she is basically a superhero. Cyrus Jr. jumps in after her and they reconcile, while Adela scowls on.
What the movie lacks in inscrutable Chinese man-servants, it makes up for in good (and funny!) performances; although, frankly, Clara Bow blows everyone else out of the water. She seems to be going 80 miles an hour even when standing still.
Movie nerding: It’s kind of weird that Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine gets so much free publicity in a Paramount movie, since William Randolph Hearst’s vanity company Cosmopolitan Pictures was attached to MGM.
Did you notice who played the meddling tabloid reporter? I didn’t: it is a young and scrawny Gary Cooper.
Madame Glyn is credited as a Writer and Producer, in addition to her cameo role.