A Woman of the World (1925)

I had a lot of fun revisiting Elvira: Mistress of the Dark this past Halloween, in which everyone’s favorite buxom horror host invades small-town America and freaks out the locals with her cinched waist & sex puns.  It felt like a distinctly 1980s story template, recalling other freaks vs. Reaganites narratives of the era like Polyester & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently found a prototype for that exact 80s-comedy template in a pre-Code comedy from the 1920s – just with less boob jokes & cleavage.  Way less. 

A Woman of the World is a silent romcom about a European woman of “loose morals” who shocks close-minded American hicks when she moves to an anonymous small-town (Maple Valley, “any little town in the Mid-West”) and falls in love with the uptight DA who’s supposed to scare her away.  Pola Negri stars as the titular femme fatale, who describes herself as “a woman of the world, yes, but not the world’s woman.”  She arrives in Maple Valley cigarette-first, defiantly indulging in every scandalous vice she finds amusing, much to the outrage of the rocking-chair biddies who act as the town’s morality police.  Everyone’s immediately fascinated by her worldliness as a European countess (visiting her American cousin by marriage, in one of the flimsiest comedy premises around), but they’re scandalized by her libertine behavior and visible tattoo.  The DA feigns to join the mob-justice crowd who wants to send her right back to Europe, but he’s obviously mesmerized by her taboo behavior, and by the end he’s offering her a cigarette from his own case in their wedding carriage.

A Woman of the World is entertaining fluff, as long as you’re easily amused by misbehaved women causing a stir.  It’s got the same femme-fatale allure of other silent genre pictures like A Fool There Was, except it celebrates her flagrant misbehavior instead of condemning it.  The most the film is willing to wag its finger at her transgressions is when she scars her new boyfriend’s face with a leather whip in a fit of revenge, like an ill-tempered dominatrix.  Even then, the dude deserves it for being a cowardly worm, and she looks sexy committing the crime.  Even her scandalous tattoo is endeared to the audience when her mild-mannered, small-town cousin reveals his even bigger tattoo of a train across his chest & arms, which he makes undulate for the camera in a classic vaudeville routine.  She may be inked up, drunk on champagne, and smoking like a chimney, but she’s good company and the movie knows it.

I loved Mistress of the Dark as a prankish nose-thumbing at the puritanical attitudes towards sex in Reagan’s America. A Woman of the World feels like it was hitting the exact same satirical targets in a rambunctious era of Hollywood filmmaking that would soon be defanged by the Hays Code.  Given how morally sanitized most mainstream filmmaking is becoming in our current Disney-sponsored hellscape, I’d say we can use another revitalization of this century-old comedy template.  We should send more loose-moraled weirdo women into the uptight, small-town American public to shake them out of their sex-phobic moral panics.  It’s always funny.

-Brandon Ledet

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