“It’s not what I say but the way I say it”: Ten Sassy Quotes from Pre-Code Hollywood

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By Heather Babcock

The advent of “talkies” (sound films) in the late 1920s coincided with the public’s increased access to radio and jazz music; this combined with the women’s rights movement and a burgeoning sexual revolution inspired a lot of the slang and witticisms that populate classic Hollywood movies, particularly those released during the Pre-Code period.

As someone who loves language, I enjoy the bon mots and word play of early sound films (and silent movies too – we must remember that although the words were not audible, there was still quite a lot of talking in pre-sound films). Hollywood pioneers like Mae West and screenwriter Anita Loos believed that language, like sex, should be fun. Although sexy, their witticisms were suggestive rather than coarse, teasing instead of tawdry.

Here is my top ten list, in no particular order, of the sassiest, cheekiest and sometimes sexiest quotes from Pre-Code Hollywood movies. If at first glance these lines don’t seem saucy or hot enough for you, try reading them out loud with a hand on your hip and a cigarette dangling from your lips. As the great Mae West said, “It’s not what I say but the way I say it.”

  1. “Will ya stop reminding me of Heaven when I’m so close to the other place?” – Joan Blondell, Three on a Match (1932)
  1. “You can’t show me a thing – I just came from the delivery room.” – Edward Nugent, Night Nurse (1931)
  1. “Your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie.” – Jean Harlow, Bombshell (1933)
  1. It takes more than flat heels and glasses to make a sensible woman.” – Ruth Chatterton, Female (1933)
  1. “When I kiss ’em, they stay kissed for a long time.” – Jean Harlow, Red-Headed Woman (1932)
  1. “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.” – Mae West, I’m No Angel (1933)
  1. “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.” – Bette Davis, The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)
  1. “You make any joint look like a speakeasy.” – Joan Blondell, Night Nurse (1931)
  1. Police detective: “You don’t look like these other women.” Marlene Dietrich: “Give me time.” – Blonde Venus (1932)
  1. “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” – Jean Harlow, Hell’s Angels (1930)

 

 

 

 

 

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From Flesh to Fantasy: Busby Berkeley and the Revitalization of the Movie Musical

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Ah, the limitations of a writer. How do you describe a bevy of beautiful women, with come-hither curves and wholesome smiles, suddenly morphing into a giant glistening magnolia flower in bloom?

As difficult as such a scene may seem to put into words, imagine having to actually create it using real live human beings and without the aid of animation or CGI. And yet somehow 1930’s choreographer and movie director Busby Berkeley did just that: by pushing the limitations of the early sound film, Busby gave flesh to fantasies that we didn’t even know we had yet.

Before Busby, musical sequences in the popular “let’s put on a show!” genre were filmed in long shot; the movie audience could only see what a stage audience would see. In 1933, Busby revitalized the genre by putting the camera where a stage audience couldn’t go. Suddenly, show-girls could fly (Dames, 1934), violins glowed in the dark (Gold Diggers of 1933) and a scrub-woman’s laundry morphed into a gallant lover (Dames, 1934).  And then there’s the elaborate water ballet “By a Waterfall” in Footlight Parade (1933), a musical sequence full of lush forests, frolicking nymphs and a human waterfall that’s so erotic it makes me blush just thinking about it!

“But you couldn’t do that in a theater!” His critics still cry. Um, that’s the point. Welcome to the magic of the movies.

Busby’s choreography was sensual but it wasn’t sexist: a celebration of the beauty of the female form, it was almost always erotic but never pornographic. When I watched La La Land (2016) in the theater a couple of years ago, I was shocked by how skinny most of the chorus girls were. Conversely, musicals made from 1929 – 1934 often showcase gorgeous chorines with ample hips and beautiful thick thighs. The genre’s shift from curvy to skinny probably says more about the power of advertising than it does about human desire.

Busby’s musical sequences in films such as 42nd Street (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 and Dames (1934) still have the power to dazzle and enthrall even the most jaded audiences of today.

Who needs CGI when you’ve got Busby Berkeley?

Written by Heather Babcock, 2019

 

Clara Bow and the Talkies

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By Heather Babcock, 2019

“All the time the flapper is laughing and dancing, there’s a feeling of tragedy underneath.” – Clara Bow

In the 1910s, film actresses were usually pythoness-like vamps (think Theda Bara) or sunny, Peter-Pan-like eternal children (such as Mary Pickford, who was still playing child roles well into her early 30s). Audiences of the roaring 1920s – giddy with bathtub gin and inspired by a burgeoning sexual revolution – were hungry for a new kind of movie star – someone wholesome but sexy, fun yet sweet – in other words, the dream-girl next door and there she was: Clara Bow.

A lonely child who was insecure about a slight speech impediment, Clara found comfort in the movies, a new medium which was quickly transforming the world and shaping the American Dream. After being forced to drop out of school to support her family by working a number of odd jobs, Clara entered the 1921 Brewster Publications’ Fame and Fortune Contest, publicized in her favorite magazine Motion Picture Classic. She won the contest but Clara still had a rough road ahead of her: “I wore myself out going from studio to studio, from agency to agency, applying for every possible part. But there was always something. I was too young, too little, or too fat. Usually I was too fat,” she would say years later. In 1925 she became a household name, playing a flapper “jazz baby” in The Plastic Age. “She has eyes that would drag any youngster away from his books,” the New York Times swooned at the time. Her role as a plucky shop girl in the movie It (1927) catapulted her to both stardom and immortality as the original “It Girl”.

One of Hollywood’s most prevalent falsehoods is the notion that Clara Bow was a casualty of the “talkies” (sound films) or, to use an oft-repeated term from the period, that she had “voice trouble”.  This, like the equally ridiculous myth that the 1960s rock group the Monkees “couldn’t play their own instruments”, is a blatant lie that, although easily refuted, nevertheless persists due to well-worn telling and re-telling of the fib, usually by sources who should – and often do – know better. Numerous magazines and “serious” film history text books published after 1950 propagate this untruth about Bow and yet one need only to read contemporary reviews of her sound films – or to simply watch one of her talkies – and the “voice trouble” tall-tale evaporates quicker than an uncapped bottle of dime-store perfume.

CLARA BOW TALKS!” read the headline of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s review of her first talkie The Wild Party. The review went on to say that Clara’s voice “records fairly well, she speaks her lines realistically enough, and while the dialogue is pretty terrible, that certainly is not her fault.(…)You’ll probably want to ‘see and hear’ Clara Bow.” (Source: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 1, 1929 issue).

Bow’s “talkies” were, if not critical successes, than at least financial ones: audiences still packed the theaters in such a capacity that police officers were often needed to control the “It Girl” hungry masses. Her sultry Brooklyn accent was perfect for the snappy, streetwise dialogue of the new medium. When she sang in the 1930 film Paramount on Parade, audiences cheered with delight.

The truth is that audiences never left Clara – Clara, unhappy with the new, still primitive, sound technology which limited her movement as an actress and terrified of the microphone, left Hollywood on her own terms to become a full-time mother and homemaker. “I don’t wanna be remembered as somebody who couldn’t do nothin’ but take her clothes off,” she said after her final film Hoopla (1933). “I want somethin’ real now.”

But Clara was always “somethin’ real”. And still is. In the WW1 action drama Wings (1927), Bow surprises Charles “Buddy” Rogers by popping up between the legs of a pair of old-fashioned Victorian style bloomers hanging on a clothesline. This scene exemplifies the spirit of Clara Bow: a fresh breeze of modernity breaking through the stuffy constraints of the past. In 2018, The Toronto Silent Film Festival screened Wings (1927) at the Fox Theatre on a Saturday afternoon. The theater was packed with patrons of all ages (including children).

Over 91 years later, Clara still has “It”.

Research Notes:

I was able to find contemporary reviews of Clara Bow’s talkies by searching the online newspaper archives available on the Brooklyn Public Library website.

I also researched this article by reading David Stenn’s excellent 1988 book Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild. It is the definitive biography of the It Girl and one of the best Hollywood biographies I have ever read – period.

 

Mae Clarke: Beyond the Grapefruit

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Mae Clarke: Beyond the Grapefruit

by Heather Babcock, 2019

In the early 1930s, gangster movies used real bullets but the most explosive scene in The Public Enemy (1931) doesn’t involve gun fire at all: the film’s most notorious moment happens as the film’s protagonist, bootlegger Tom Powers (James Cagney), sits down to breakfast with his moll Kitty, played by the lovely Mae Clarke. They have obviously just had sex and Tom is acting more than a little cold and distracted. Kitty, looking fabulous in a pair of silk lounging pajamas, asks him if he has met someone he likes better. Cagney’s sneer curls up like a fist as he picks up a half grapefruit and smashes it in Mae’s face. It is a cruel scene which still shocks today and it confirms our suspicion that Tom Powers is a sociopath.

It seems that almost every man who had a hand in making The Public Enemy has their own story of how this scene came to be shot; the most commonly accepted theory is also the most condescending: the belief that the scene was improvised by Cagney and director William A. Wellman, without Clarke’s knowledge or consent and that her response was thus genuine. This assumption irritates me as it is dismissive of Clarke’s admirable acting talents and relegates her to little more than a prop. Well, Mae Clarke was no prop and she sure as hell wasn’t a hack either: in 1931, in addition to the Public Enemy, she delivered strong performances in three important films: Waterloo Bridge, Frankenstein and The Front Page. As for that grapefruit, I’m going to go with Mae’s version of the story, both because I trust her talent and because I like her better than all those other mugs: in a 1983 interview with American Classic Screen, Mae said that the script originally called for Cagney throwing the grapefruit at her and then storming out. After trying this out, Wellman and Cagney felt that the scene wasn’t quite working so they took Mae aside and asked her if she would be okay with Cagney pushing the grapefruit in her face. Mae didn’t like the idea but agreed to do it on the condition that the scene be shot once and with no retakes. According to Mae, Wellman and Cagney agreed to her conditions. Still, according to her close friends, Mae always hated the “grapefruit scene”.

Viewers today may honor her talent by watching this great actress in the powerful role for which she would undoubtedly prefer to be remembered: as chorus girl turned prostitute Myra in James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931).

Mae Clarke was much more than just “the dame who gets the grapefruit facial”. The most criminal thing about the Public Enemy is that she did not even receive a screen credit.

– Heather Babcock, 2019 (from my essay Beer and Blood: The Birth of the Public Enemy)

Gold Diggers of 1933

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“It’s the Depression, dearie.”

 “We’re in the money!” Ginger Rogers sings during the opening of this extravagant musical, but when she starts warbling the song in Pig Latin, we know she’s just being tongue-in-cheek, particularly when the sheriff and his deputies interrupt the show to collect on the producer’s unpaid bills (“Ain’t you goin’ to at least give me car fare?” Ginger asks, as one of the sheriff’s men demands her costume). Because of course in 1933, most Americans weren’t “in the money” and most refreshingly neither are the “gold diggers” in this movie: the fetching trio of Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Aline MacMahon wake up in a flea bag hotel, scratching at bug bites and complaining of hunger pains. So what do you do in hard times? Well, if you’ve ever seen a 1930s movie, you know the answer to that question is “put on a show!” And with the incomparable Busby Berkeley choreographing, what a show it is! Busby works his innovative magic with the romantic “Shadow Waltz” (neon gowns and violins!) and the fun & naughty “Pettin’ in the Park” (keep an eye out for gorgeous Theresa Harris). After nearly 90 minutes of escapism though, the film explodes with the boot stomping finale “Remember my Forgotten Man” in which WW1 veterans, physically broken and emotionally battered, ask “We fought for USA, but where are we today?”

It is important to note that Gold Diggers of 1933 shares the same director as I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932): Mervyn LeRoy. You don’t have to dig too deep to find the nugget of social commentary lurking in the shadows of Gold Diggers of 1933’s party: there’s plenty of grit in this glitter.

“Yes,” the film seems to say to its intended Depression-era audience, “We know you need escapism and we will give it to you, but we will also respect you by acknowledging and validating that of which you need to escape from.”

This need for both human connection and fantasy is why we go to the movies.

It’s also why we create art.

Toronto readers note: Gold Diggers of 1933 is playing March 23rd, 2019 at the Revue theatre in 35mm!

 

Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Movies and Magic My Father Taught Me

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By Heather Babcock

 “Here’s a quarter. Now why don’t you get out of my hair and find something to do?”

The little boy’s eyes grew almost as round as the shiny new coin that his mother had just placed in his open palm. Oblivious to his awe, she turned away from him and plunged her still delicate and feminine hands into a bucket of lye soap. For almost two years, the little boy’s father had been out of work and his mother had taken up odd jobs such as scrubbing the neighbor’s floor and taking in sewing and laundry. A quarter was a very big deal – it could mean the difference between some food on the table and none at all.

“Go on!” his mother snapped, breaking the little boy’s reverie. “Why don’t you go see that wizard picture everybody’s gabbing about?”

Bolting out the door before she could change her mind, the boy headed down to Loew’s theatre on Yonge Street where a new film – The Wizard of Oz (1939) – had just opened.

“It was my first movie,” my father would tell me seventy years later, in 2009. “And it was the most wonderful thing I have ever seen.”

My father had been a quiet man who was never superfluous with his words. Yet like most quiet people, he possessed a gentle ability to captivate his listeners on the rare occasion when he did choose to speak. It was not only the words that he chose but how he looked at you when he said them: the light in his eyes as he recalled his first movie experience told me everything that I needed to know about cowardly lions, magical ruby slippers, yellow brick roads and the wonders that could be found in a Technicolor rainbow bursting through the storm clouds of the Great Depression.

Growing up, The Wizard of Oz was a Christmas movie staple in our household, along with A Christmas Story (1983) – I remain convinced that my parents got the idea to wash my mouth out with soap from Ralphie’s mom (thanks to a road rage inflicted school bus driver, I had a bit of a potty mouth).

When I was twelve-years-old, I was the only girl in my class who didn’t need a brassiere. “I’m too skinny!” I’d wail, shutting myself in my room. “I hate my body!” One evening my father came home bearing three VHS tapes: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Funny Face (1957) and Sabrina (1954). “I want you to watch these movies,” my father said, gently placing the tapes outside my bedroom door. “Audrey Hepburn was skinny but she was beautiful. You’re beautiful too.” My father was never really one for hugs or open displays of affection. Those movies were his way of telling me that he loved me.

As is often the case with father/daughter relationships, adolescence came between my dad and me. However I do have one sweet memory from that otherwise turbulent period: watching Muriel’s Wedding (1994) with my father in a Cineplex movie theatre on a cold winter’s day. He had shyly asked if he could come with me, after I confessed that I was going to the theatre alone. We enjoyed the film immensely, mostly because it was the first time in ages that we had heard each other laugh.

“I never saw that Toni Collette before,” my father said as we left the theatre. “But I’d like to see her again.”

In 2009, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He could no longer walk and his hands shook uncontrollably but he didn’t want to talk about that – he wanted to talk about other things, like his days in the Navy and his pet cat Angel. But most of all, he wanted to talk about the movies.

“This is not her best work,” my father said, in between spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream as we watched BUtterfield 8 (1960) together in his hospital room. “If you really want to understand Elizabeth, you need to see her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958).” Elizabeth Taylor was his favorite actress. She had kick started his lifelong love of brunettes.

A week after my father died, I rented a bunch of my favorite comedies from my local Blockbuster. I sat staring numbly at the screen as I watched the films, wanting to laugh but feeling nothing.

“It’s okay to feel sad now,” my best friend assured me. “Someday you’ll feel happy again.”

On Christmas Day of that year, I watched The Wizard of Oz  and bawled like a baby. But I wasn’t crying for Dorothy or the Tin Man; my tears were for a lonely little boy sitting in a darkened theatre in September of 1939.

A little boy who was just discovering magic for the very first time.

Written by Heather Babcock, copyright 2018