That’s A Wrap with “Lilac Time,” 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As the Homestead continues its commemoration of the centennial of the First World War, this “That’s A Wrap” entry highlights what looks to be a lobby card for the 1928 hit film “Lilac Time.”

Based on a Broadway play in turn drawn from a novel, the First National Pictures production was released on 18 October and, though it was developed before the release of the massively successful 1927 film “Wings,” starring Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers, it was not released until a year later.

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This 1928 broadside, possibly a lobby card, from the Homestead’s coillection promoted the hit 1928 World War I-themed film “Lilac Time,” starring the top box-office star of the time, Colleen Moore, and a new star-in-the-making, Gary Cooper.

The plot involved a pair of British aviators fighting the Germans stationed at an impromptu airfield in a French lilac farm.  Moore’s character, the daughter of the farmer, falls for Cooper’s pilot, Phillip Blythe.  Surviving a bombing of her village, Jeannine returns to the farm and the two pledge to see each other again after a battle in which Blythe is shot down and wounded.  The melodrama ends with Moore getting a view from a distance of her lover, who was almost completely wrapped in bandages in his hospital bed in Paris.

Because of its extensive aviation action scenes, in which seven craft were destroyed and a stunt pilot killed, as well as the destruction of an entire village set and the use of hundreds of extras, “Lilac Time” cost some $1 million, a huge sum for the time.

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Note the breathless caption “He had courted Death til he found this greater love—The last good bye kiss.”

In fact, “Lilac Time” was developed for Moore by her producer and husband John McCormick as a way to get her more dramatic roles because she was far better known for her comic performances, as was Bow, another preeminent “flapper” star whose other huge 1927 smash was “It.”

Moore, whose career began in 1917, was a prototypical flapper in 1923’s “Flaming Youth” and within a few years was the top box-office draw in film making $12,500 a week.  Though her glory days were in the silent period, she periodically acted during the sound era.  Her shrewd investing with her earnings made her wealthy, however, so she didn’t need to act for the money.  Moore lived until the age of 88, dying in 1988.

Director George Fitzmaurice was a native of Paris with French and Dutch ancestry and was a screenwriter as well as a director, though he was not considered to be one of the great helmsman in the silent era.  His best-known film was Rudolph Valentino’s final picture, 1926’s “The Son of the Sheik,” though he went on to direct Greta Garbo in 1931’s “Mata Hari” and worked until his death in 1940.

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Much of the $1 million cost (a staggering amount for the period) of filming went towards lengthy live battle scenes, in which a stunt pilot was killed and seven craft destroyed.

The other lead actor was a relative newcomer to Hollywood and made his debut in 1925.  However, Cooper appeared in minor roles in both “It” and “Wings”, at which time he was earning $150 a week.  “Lilac Time” was his first starring role and it launched his career, which starting with 1929’s “The Virginian” was often best known for westerns, though he had plenty of other roles for which he became famous over three decades.  Cooper, who won Academy Awards for best actor for “Sergeant York” (1941) and “High Noon” (1952), died of cancer in 1960.

Befitting a movie that pulled out all the stops for an era that prized melodramatic weepers to the hilt, the broadside contains text that just won’t stop when it comes to breathless emotionality.

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Just take a gander at the following extract:

Up here [in the air during battle], life is noting.  Got to foreget it, or you’re lost.  Danger comes riding at you at ninety miles an hour . . . . “Jeannine!  Jeannine!  Let me kiss your eyes” . . .   One day of love.  One day?  One minute, for a love like this.  And now—”Jeannine!  Don’t let it break your heart! . . .  Jeannine!  Jeannine!  One more—and I’ll come back!”

By the late 1920s, the cross-promotion of music and film was well-oiled and fine-tuned (!) in a few respects.  First, “Lilac Time” was an early example of a film using a synchronized recorded soundtrack, performed by a 100-piece symphony orchestra.  However, the morning of the premiere, held at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles (which was the topic of a recent post in the “That’s A Wrap” series), the film, according to Moore’s memoir, broke three times.  But, the evening performance went perfectly.

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The other area was through the hit theme song, “Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time,” but we’ll save for that Wednesday’s “Striking a Chord” post!

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