Too Much Flapper: A Lost Film and a Summer Mystery From 1928

This may be the strangest tale in the subterranean vaults of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound.

It was May, and Knoxville was movie mad. The dreamlike Tennessee Theatre was under construction, due to be finished in the fall, but six other theaters on Gay Street—the Strand, the Queen, the Rex, the Lyric, and, reigning over them all, the Riviera—were showing movies every day but Sunday. The Riviera's more than 1,000 seats made it the largest movie theater in the area. The new Tennessee would almost double that number, but not until October.

Everybody wanted to see movies, and you get the impression that almost everybody wanted to be in them. The previous year, a couple of young Knoxvillians had starred in an unusual movie called Stark Love, which had caught New York's film critics by surprise.

A stranger with a small mustache showed up in town with some camera equipment, touting his Hollywood connections. James Baret had shot movies of combat in the World War, and later worked with Famous Players as a cameraman and sometime director. Talking to some, he claimed to be the ex-husband of Hollywood beauty Billie Dove and showed around a photo of himself with some Hollywood kids, including little Peggy Eames, recognizable that spring for her "Our Gang" short silents. Baret claimed he had discovered her.

The Journal and the Riviera sponsored a project he proposed, a two-reel slapstick comedy that would also serve as an advertising vehicle. It was to be called "Too Much Flapper."

Baret spent some weeks casting it, emphasizing in the morning Journal that he wanted certain types of young women—for example, "a girl about 14 years old, with good eyes, full of pep" and "a senior high school girl, about 16 years old, to border on the movie ‘vamp' type." He assured us that blondes would get no special consideration.

Also needed was a "he-man" of about 20 and a junior-high boy "who could play the part of a sissy convincingly." There were formal tryouts, and actors would be paid for their work.

Baret said he preferred working with children. "The younger they are, the susceptible they are to direction," he said.

His plot sounds pretty funny, the story of a high-school girl who's trying to get a new car out of her lustful uncle by setting him up with one of her "vamp" friends, then inflaming the jealousy of a local boy who's known to be sweet on the vamp. It's a sort of extortion sex comedy.

The star was to be a young woman named Mary Daly, a slightly exotic-looking brunette whom Baret declared "the Clara Bow type." Joyce Bennett (or Burnett—spellings varied with the reporter) was a 16-year-old with a role, described by Baret as "a wonderful photographic type. In this regard, I think she surpasses Billie Dove."

Male roles went to Roland (or Rollin) Gallagher, Ed Pierce (or Pearce), and Jack Comer, who played the "sissy." That's a name some today might recognize. A juvenile jazz dancer in the '20s, Jack Comer would later be involved in pool halls and local show business. In his later years, he was proprietor of Deane Hill Country Club, which was one of the city's most interesting magnets for jazz performers in the 1950s.

Others with smaller roles went mostly to kids, and mostly to girls, including Betty King, Jean Stansbury, Grace McNutt, Billie Johnston, Helen Cooper, Hilda Joffre, Louise Swan, Harriet Wilkins. (Wilkins had "one of the most perfect movie faces," Baret declared.) And there was little Pinkie Lee Koehn, a bricklayer's daughter from Lincoln Park.

The shooting took place at Caswell Park, Chilhowee Park, Knoxville High School, Park Junior High on Bertrand, the fashionable collegiate department of Hall's fashionable clothing store on Gay Street, Sanitary Laundry at Broadway and Central, the East Tennessee Bank, Knoxville Business College, and Cherokee Motor Co., which was the Studebaker dealer at 318 State St. It appears to have been an early experiment in product placement.

A climactic scene was when the teenaged "he-man" heaved the lecherous old uncle into the lake at Chilhowee Park.

Baret shot 3,200 feet of film, cut to about half in editing. When he was done, he threw a big celebratory banquet at the chic Whittle Springs Hotel. Each of the young actors was invited to speak about what the experience had meant to them. Twelve-year-old Pinkie Lee Koehn stood up and talked about her dream of going into films as a screenwriter. Baret was encouraging that maybe she could do that.

After three weeks of delays, the movie was finally shown at the Riviera on June 19, alongside a new feature film, Street of Sin, starring Emil Jannings and Fay Wray. "Too Much Flapper" was billed as "Knoxville's own Movie with Knoxville's own Movie Stars."

Baret seems to have left town about the time his movie opened. It was a "suspiciously hurried departure," some remarked. After two months of highly publicized appearances, he just took off, and didn't hang around to hear the accolades.

The new movie "won immediate laughter and applause," according to the Journal, its sponsor. It showed four times a day for about a week, about 24 showings in all in a house that seated 1,006.

"Too Much Flapper" was still in that maiden run at the Riviera when one of its heralded young actresses was reported missing. "Little Pinkie Lee Koehn," of Atlantic Avenue, had vanished just before the movie's first showing. A student at Boyd Junior High, she was chubby and more cute than pretty. She looked older than 12, and was known to hang around with older girls.

In 1928, it was easy for even a kid to get around town on the electric streetcar, and Pinkie Lee was willful and especially precocious. That Saturday just before the premiere, she'd been downtown and telephoned her mom that she'd be home by 8 o'clock. She was last seen that day entering the Farragut Hotel at Gay and Clinch.

A photograph of her in bobbed hair, a fashionable cloche hat, and a disdainful expression went to hundreds of papers across the country. Suspicion turned toward the mysterious director.

[To be continued …]