Red Lipstick Made Me a Criminal (and a few other fun facts about your favorite cosmetic)

By Heather Babcock, 2021

Red lipstick made me do it.

The sleek, white plastic tube of flame-orange wax called out to me from the bowels of the Zellers’ cosmetic aisle.

The year was 1988 and I was ten years old. At home, a large poster of Madonna, in character for Who’s That Girl (1987), hung over my bed: clad in fishnets, a leather jacket and fingerless gloves. More intimidating than the revolver in her hands was the stark red lipstick on her face. Fierce. Fabulous. I didn’t understand why the other girls at my school didn’t like her. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to wear lipstick too.

Every Saturday, my mother would go grocery shopping at the Kipling Queensway Mall and my dad would give my sister and I a dollar each to buy either trash or a treat at the mall’s dollar store or Zellers. But this Saturday, I didn’t feel like a chocolate bar or a bag of chips. I didn’t need another whoopee cushion or copy of Tiger Beat magazine.

I wanted that lipstick.

It didn’t matter that it cost a little more than the dollar my dad had given me. To my ten-year-old mind, that was an unfairness that could be easily corrected. And so, taking advantage of my then-mousy invisibility, I quietly slipped the coveted tube into the pocket of my Levi’s. I don’t remember feeling nervous or even giddy about it and I certainly didn’t feel guilty – that red lipstick belonged to me. It was mine. I did however make the colossal mistake of boasting to my sister about the steal, in proud whispers, on the ride home.

Hey Daaaa-dddd,” she called out smugly. “Heather stole a lipstick!

And so, before I knew it, I was back in the Zellers department store, handing over my swag and stammering out an apology to the bored teenage clerk whose only response to my foray into crime was a glassy-eyed shrug.

Continue reading “Red Lipstick Made Me a Criminal (and a few other fun facts about your favorite cosmetic)”

This Writer’s Bump and Grind

Doll photography inspired by Wanda Wiggles

Ever since I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s as a teenager, I’ve held an admiration for the art of burlesque. If you’ve never seen the movie, or it’s been awhile, there’s a great scene where Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard duck into an early morning girlie show with the goal of getting zozzled. A voluptuous beauty in a skintight fishtail hemmed dress appears onstage and begins bumping her shapely hips to the beat of a vaudevillian drum. “Gracious!” Audrey exclaims, yanking her oversized sunglasses down her nose. “Do you think she’s handsomely paid?”

As an adult, I had the pleasure of attending burlesque performances in Toronto; my friend Lizzie used to run a great Cabaret Noir which often featured burlesque dancers. I love the sexy cheekiness of this artform, as well as its unapologetic femininity. Much imagination and preparation goes into planning and executing these performances; the skill of the burlesque dancer is often overlooked and/or underrated.

Much of the action in my debut novel Filthy Sugar takes place at a burlesque house. One of the joys of writing Filthy Sugar was that I got to be my own Busby Berkeley. Coming up with ideas and choreography for my protagonist Wanda Wiggles was super fun. Some of the burlesque scenes were inspired by famous striptease performers: a chapter in which Wanda bathes almost naked in a giant glass of champagne is a nod to Lili St. Cyr, while Bettie Page and Tempest Storm’s act in the 1955 film Teaserama gave me the idea for the sexy maid/mistress routine between Wanda and fellow burlesque dancer/lover Lili Belle. In addition to watching vintage footage of burlesque performances and wiggle movies, I also took a drop-in class at the Toronto School of Burlesque, which helped me to learn the basics of the artform.

Some of the routines were inspired by nothing more than my imagination. Here is one of my favorites, excerpted from my novel:

The chorines, dressed in shimmering onyx black cat suits with a mammoth feather affixed to the back of each girl’s bowed head, lock arms as they arrange themselves into the shape of a giant almond. At the sound of Eddie’s fat drumroll, the hoofers roll their shoulders backwards and bob their heads: the assembly line of feathers fluttering flirtatiously. I emerge from the centre of the elephantine eye with arms outstretched, spinning atop a small revolving stage like a little ballerina doll in a jewellery box.

Coyly, I peer over my shoulder at the audience. Is Mr. Manchester in the house tonight? Is he watching me? I part my lips and slip a gloved finger into my mouth. Slowly, I remove the soft satin grey glove with my teeth, tossing it toward the footlights. The band kicks it into high gear and I wiggle my bottom and shake my hips as the crowd roars. I wrap my left arm over my chest and unzip the back of my dress with my right hand. Holding the gown loosely over my breasts, I throw out a wink and a smile to the audience. With the impatient pounding of Eddie’s drum, I let the dress fall as the eye blinks and swallows me whole.

***

Filthy Sugar is available from Inanna Publications as both a paperback and as an e-book. It is also available in Kindle, Kobo and audio editions. Or ask for it at your local bookseller!

Heather Babcock, 2021

American Pop Culture Saves Democracy: The Phynx (1970)

You know that dream where you discover a room in your house that you never even knew existed? Well, imagine that room filled with various 1930’s movie stars (including Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Butterfly McQueen and Pat O’Brien to name just a few) as well as Joe Louis, Ed Sullivan, Dick Clark, Richard Pryor, Busby Berkeley, Rudy Vallee and Colonel Sanders (yes, THE real Colonel Sanders), serving up his famous buckets of fried chicken while a young Monkees-inspired rock band restores everyone’s faith in America.

No, this isn’t a dream. This is The Phynx (1970).

The Phynx (1970) has been called the “Holy Grail” of bad movies but it’s not bad at all – in fact, I’d argue that it’s actually pretty groovy. The film was released in May of 1970 but Warner Bros.-Seven Arts pulled the picture after only a few screenings. As it was shelved so quickly, no movie posters were created (hence the banner photo of my physical DVD of the film, in lieu of a proper poster image). It would languish in obscurity in the vaults for forty-two years before Warner Bros. finally released the film on DVD in 2012, as part of their manufactured-on-demand Archive Collection.

But why did Warner Bros. pull this movie when so many worse films have seen wide release? Why, some may ask, did Warner Bros. make the picture at all? Fifty-one years later and counting, the riddle of The Phynx remains unsolved.

Continue reading “American Pop Culture Saves Democracy: The Phynx (1970)”

Garbo and Walter

Artwork of Garbo and old movie theatre created with public domain photos

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” – Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire

Nostalgia is less a yearning for the past than it is a desire to dream again. My loveliest memories are of days spent dreaming.

Like the summer I turned sixteen. Nothing very tangible happened to me that summer; I didn’t get felt up at the drive-in, nor did I get drunk with the carnies behind the funhouse at the CNE. I was never grounded and nobody ever kissed me.

But it was a quiet, pleasant summer. The air was sticky sweet, like strawberry popsicles, and the skies were full of bumble-bees as plump and lazy as well loved cats. I spent my mornings eating stale chocolate chip cookies and licking envelopes for the Cancer Society, an exciting volunteer job because it required me to take two buses and the subway, even though it was in my hometown of Etobicoke.

In the early 1990s, Etobicoke was a juxtaposition of mom & pop milk shops and corporate Kmarts; of shiny new office towers and oak trees as old as elephants. Substitute “Costco” for “Kmart” and “condos” for “office towers” and it’s pretty much the same today.

Continue reading “Garbo and Walter”

The Classic and the ‘Trash-ic’: 42nd Street (1933) and Showgirls (1995)

One is a (seemingly) wholesome and widely beloved classic Warner Brothers’ movie musical, featuring visually dazzling song and dance numbers choreographed by the now-legendary Busby Berkeley. The other is a crass and tacky soft core MGM porn show whose title became a punch-line even before its release.

On closer inspection however, 42nd Street (1933) and Showgirls (1995) have a lot more in common than one may suspect. To paraphrase Truman Capote, it’s like the two movies grew up together in the same house and one day 42nd Street got up and strutted out the front door, while Showgirls sneaked out the back.

Although only one takes place in Vegas, both films were a gamble.

Continue reading “The Classic and the ‘Trash-ic’: 42nd Street (1933) and Showgirls (1995)”

Honest Ed’s: 1948 – 2016

Photo of Heather Babcock, outside of Honest Ed’s, taken by Nigel Hamid of Toronto Verve, 2014

“There’s no place like this place!”

Honest Ed’s was one of the most inclusive places in the city of Toronto. It wasn’t just a bargain basement; with its fading posters and head-shots of long forgotten stars scotch taped to its poorly painted walls, Honest Ed’s was a free museum of Toronto’s theatrical history. Toronto tends to take itself a little too seriously sometimes and Honest Ed’s was a reminder that it’s okay to be a little silly and to have some fun.

The delightfully tacky and iconic landmark permanently turned off its lights on December 31st, 2016. A couple of years prior, the very talented photographer Nigel Hamid of Toronto Verve took some photos of me, outside and inside of Honest Ed’s. I feel very lucky to have these photographic memories of a fun and never-to-be-forgotten historic wonder.

“Relaxing” at Honest Ed’s, 2014. Photo by Nigel Hamid of Toronto Verve.

Book Review: Centre Door Fancy by Joan Blondell

Review by Heather Babcock, 2021

“My first awareness was the sound of laughter and applause, the scent of powder, perfume, greasepaint; and as the months passed, my world became a kaleidoscope of music, colors, and lights, the rhythm of train wheels pressing the tracks, the wail of a whistle, the exquisite harmony of the orchestra playing, the exquisite discord of the orchestra tuning up, the cadence of that familiar call, ‘Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jack!'” – Joan Blondell, Centre Door Fancy (1972)

Curvaceous and quick witted, Joan Blondell was the quintessential sassy dame of the Pre-Code era. One of the hardest working actors in Hollywood – she starred in a total of fifty-four films during the 1930s alone – Blondell was “born in a trunk” and began her lifelong career in show business at the age of four-months on the stages of Vaudeville.

In 1972, Blondell published her novel Centre Door Fancy, described by her publisher as “a fascinating (story) of the world of Vaudeville and the world of Hollywood by a woman who was born into one and became a star in the other.”

In other words, this ain’t exactly fiction.

Continue reading “Book Review: Centre Door Fancy by Joan Blondell”

We’re (Not) in the Money: What Covid-era Filmmakers Can Learn From Pre-Code Depression-era Movies

“He’s just the kind of man I’ve been looking for: lots of money and no resistance.” Aline MacMahon and Guy Kibbee in Gold Diggers of 1933

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the pandemic themed HBO Max movie Locked Down in which writer John Jurgensen posed the question: does anyone want to see on screen what they experience every day? After all, as Jurgensen points out, Covid-19 themed productions such as the TV Show Connecting…and the movie Songbird both flopped with audiences and critics alike.

“Man, I can’t wait to watch all these movies being made about the pandemic – said no one ever!” my friend Natasha recently texted me. “Maybe a movie about dogs in the pandemic would be more interesting.”

Both the conversation with my friend and Jurgensen’s article got me thinking about all those movies made during another crisis: namely the Pre-Code films created during the early years of the Great Depression.

But weren’t Depression-era movies all about glitzy escapism, you may ask and you’d be partly right: the most enduring films of the 1930s are the flashy musicals, the screwball comedies and the Universal monster flicks. However a closer look at these films reveal more grit than glitter: after all, remember that it was a stolen apple that led the impoverished waif Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to Skull Island in King Kong (1933), arguably the most famous of all Pre-Code movies.

Continue reading “We’re (Not) in the Money: What Covid-era Filmmakers Can Learn From Pre-Code Depression-era Movies”

“It’s not how you wear ’em, it’s how you work ’em”: Back Seam Stockings

“Immediately, she examined Miss Armstrong closely as a mistress. (…) Francie looked at her legs. They were long, slender and exquisitely molded. She wore the sheerest of flawless silk stockings, and expensively-made high-heeled pumps shod her beautifully arched feet. ‘Beautiful legs, then, is the secret of being a mistress’, concluded Francie.” – Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)

“One of the most important things in being well-dressed, to my way of thinking, is to watch your hose. No matter how expensive the rest of your costume, if your hosiery is not sheer and clear and in the right shade, the entire effect can be ruined. Therefore I am careful about the shade of hose I wear with each frock, and always, always have hose that are sheer and utterly ringless.” – Joan Blondell, Modern Screen Magazine, January 1937

Stockings have steadily fallen out of favor over the past four decades. Fishnet and patterned leggings are still donned by fun loving fashionistas, but today drugstore pantyhose is only one step ahead of crocks in the style department. However, there was a time when stockings were the must have accessory, for both everyday wear and to complement an elegant outfit. Held in place by garter belts, with a straight seam up the back, fully fashioned stockings (or “back seam stockings”) were worn by everyone from factory girls to movie stars.

Continue reading ““It’s not how you wear ’em, it’s how you work ’em”: Back Seam Stockings”

Even Santa Could Use Some “Filthy Sugar” in His Stocking: Inanna Holiday Sale On Now!

“The 1930s come alive in this novel” – From Historical Novel Society review

Looking for the perfect gift for the vintage lover on your list? My publisher Inanna Publications is currently having a holiday sale: use the coupon code HOLIDAY20 at checkout and receive 30% off my debut historical novel Filthy Sugar.

Set in the 1930s, Filthy Sugar follows the adventures of my voluptuous redheaded heroine Wanda Whittle who finds fame on the burlesque stage at the Apple Bottom theatre as “Wanda Wiggles”. Shady coppers, coke-snorting temperance ladies, cowardly boxers and dime-store bootleggers: Wanda will encounter them all on her journey from rags to riches and back again as she discovers that a girl doesn’t need a lot of sugar to be sensational!

“Filthy Sugar is so delicious it’s positively sinful! Wanda Wiggles will take you to another time and place, but a place where love, lust, greed, sex and power are just as heartbreaking and complex as they are today”. – Lisa de Nikolits, author of The Occult Persuasion and the Anarchist’s Solution and The Rage Room

Support small businesses and local authors this Christmas and get your hands on some Filthy Sugar here.