Beer and Blood: The Birth of the Public Enemy (1931)

cool dudes

By Heather Babcock

THREE DETROIT GANGSTERS MASSACRED: DEAD VICTIMS STILL HOLD CIGARS THEY SMOKED WHEN GUNS SPOKE, screamed a rather poetic real life Globe newspaper headline on September 17th, 1931.

Prohibition, now over a decade old, had transformed ordinary citizens into lawbreakers and everyday hoodlums into wealthy, bloodthirsty demigods. 1931 could arguably be summed up as “the year of the gangster”: the newspapers were full of ‘em – stories of “bloody bootleg rackets” and “bootlegger bandit death trysts” dominated the headlines and, thanks to the Warner Brothers studio, the silver screen as well. The studio, which only a few years earlier had revolutionized the industry by ushering in sound (or “talkies”) with 1927’s The Jazz Singer, began 1931 with a bang when they released Little Caesar.

“Be somebody,” Rico, Little Caesar’s ambitious thug, played by the incomparable Edward G. Robinson, enthuses at the start of the film. To “be somebody” is to be rich but as Rico warns “Money’s all right but it ain’t everything. Be somebody. Look hard at a bunch of guys and know that they’ll do anything you tell ‘em. Have your own way or nothin’.”

In other words, to “be somebody” is to live the American Dream and in an America caught in the double-fisted grip of Prohibition and the Great Depression, it was a dream gone dangerously delirious – a dream fueled by buckets of bathtub gin; a dream which could be poisonous if taken straight.

Little Caesar was a massive hit – so much so that theatres had to keep it running twenty-four hours a day just to satisfy audience demand; they had done the same thing almost four years earlier with Underworld, Josef von Sternberg’s 1927 gangland epic for Paramount Pictures.  Underworld, a film dripping with both beauty and brutality, is considered by many to be the first successful gangster picture – the Grand Daddy of all gangster movies if you will – but it was a silent film; it wasn’t until the gangsters began to talk when the genre truly secured its choke hold on the public’s imagination. It is a testament to the power and influence of the movies that when we picture Prohibition-era gangsters today it is not the real-life criminals, such as Al Capone or Jack “Legs” Diamond, who immediately come to mind but rather Edward G. Robinson, a cigar anchored between his lips, or James Cagney, shooting his words out quicker than bullets from a Tommy gun.

Riding the wave of gunfire, Warner Brothers followed Little Caesar with The Public Enemy, released in April of that same year. In The Public Enemy, James Cagney stars as the nasty break-your-word-and-I’ll-break-your-face bootlegger Tom Powers. One wonders if we would still be discussing this film eighty-seven years later if it were not for Cagney. I say that not to lessen the talent of the movie’s other stars, but there has never been any question that The Public Enemy is Cagney’s picture. Originally Edward Woods was signed on to play Tom Powers, with Cagney as his side-kick Matt. However when director William “Wild Bill” Wellman was viewing the early footage he realized that it was Cagney, and not the handsome but reticent Woods, who crackled with an almost frightening intensity. Wellman switched the actors’ roles and both a classic movie and a star were born.

(Excerpt from my 2018 essay “Beer and Blood: The Birth of the Public Enemy (1931))

 

 

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Virginia Rappe: The Self-Made Woman behind the Man-Made Rumors

Dear Virginia

Written by Heather Babcock, 2019

“Be original – every girl can be that.” – Virginia Rappe

 It was Labor Day, 1921. The beloved on-screen comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was throwing a gin-soaked party in his San Francisco hotel room when one of his guests, the comely starlet Virginia Rappe, fell seriously ill. Four days later Virginia was dead, Arbuckle stood accused of her murder and the flourishing movie industry would never be the same.

Although we may never truly know what happened in room 1219 on that fateful Monday, it is now widely believed that is was peritonitis, and not Arbuckle, which led to Rappe’s death. In spite of this, many myths regarding the tragedy still exist today with the most egregious centered on Virginia. Over the decades, she has been painted by both the press and Arbuckle’s numerous biographers as either a spotless angel or a dirty harlot, depending on whether the writer wishes to vilify or exonerate Roscoe. Usually it’s the latter. One of the most persistent – and vicious – myths is that Virginia’s supposed promiscuity led to Mack Sennett having to fumigate Keystone Studios for crabs (not surprisingly this rumor originated from that tome of trash Hollywood Babylon). Never mind that Virginia never even worked for Keystone nor was she ever afflicted with louse, the rumor (and slut-shaming) endures.

Thankfully Virginia Rappe has finally found a friend in Greg Merritt, a biographer who doesn’t believe that the only way to prove Arbuckle’s innocence is to slander Rappe.  In his extremely well researched and thoughtful 2013 true crime biography Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood, Merritt debunks many of the myths surrounding the Arbuckle scandal (including the aforementioned Keystone crabs rumor). As he searches for the truth of what actually happened in that hotel room on September 5th, 1921, Merritt treats both Arbuckle and Rappe with empathy and compassion but it is his chapter on Virginia’s life which brings to light the human behind the headlines.

Here is some of what I learned about Virginia Rappe from reading Greg Merritt’s book:

Supermodel, You Better Work:

 Born out of wedlock to a teenage mother in 1891 and orphaned at the age of eleven, Virginia changed her last name from “Rapp” to the French sounding “Rappe” (pronounced “Rap-pay”) and began modelling when she was sixteen years old (this was during the high fashion industry’s infancy stage; Virginia’s modelling career started in 1907 and the first reported runway show was only in 1904). In 1913, Virginia toured the United States and Europe as a full-time model at a reported salary of $4000 (Over $100,000 in today’s currency).

Independent Woman:

 In 1911, Virginia and two of her close girlfriends made a pact never to marry. A proud feminist, Virginia wore a black tuxedo coat in a magazine photo: “Equal Clothes Rights with Men!” read the accompanying text. The model turned media maven gave career advice in press interviews, encouraging young women to become self-employed and financially independent.

Making Headlines – and Hemlines:

 Adept at self-promotion and publicity, Virginia Rappe knew how to make both headlines and hemlines: in 1914, she became a fashion designer, marketing her designs at the 1915 World’s Fair. Her creations included the “spider web hat”, an airplane shaped hat and even a “submarine hat”. An outspoken pacifist, a design which may have been especially close to Virginia’s heart was her “peace hat”, a cap which was molded in the shape of two dove wings.

In a newspaper article at the time, Virginia Rappe was praised as “a young woman who has lifted fashion designing to the plane of fine art.”

After her death, Virginia’s extraordinary accomplishments fell into the shadows. I guess “feminist fashion designer” just doesn’t have the same salacious pull as “fresh young starlet”.

“In most accounts of the case, she (Virginia) is diminished to a bit part, as if it was not her tragedy,” writes Greg Merritt in Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood.

 His book gives Virginia the respect she is long overdue.

Source: Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood by Greg Merritt, 2013, Chicago Review Press Incorporated.

 

 

Good Golly, Miss Mabel!

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On Saturday April 6th, I attended “1000 Laffs: When Stan Met Ollie”at the Revue theater, as part of the Toronto Silent Film Festival. The event, with wonderful live accompaniment by Jordan Klapman, showcased five silent comedies featuring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the years before they became the beloved duo “Laurel and Hardy”.

The theater was jam packed (so much so that my partner and I had to take the “rubberneck” seats at the front) and I was pleasantly surprised to see many children in attendance. Today’s filmmakers have such little faith in children that they bombard modern “family” flicks with adult music, crude humor and eyeball blasting CGI. The obvious delight that the kids in attendance on Saturday had for these classic silent comedies (one of which was over a hundred years old) speaks to the timeless appeal of a more simplistic and human approach to storytelling.

With all due respect to the great Laurel and Hardy, the real star of the afternoon was Mabel Normand who got the biggest laughs as a sassy con-artist in Should Men Walk Home? (1927). Her charming performance is made all the more impressive by the fact that she was suffering from tuberculosis at the time (sadly, this would be one of her last screen appearances as she would succumb to the disease in early 1930). It is a shame that today Normand is best remembered for her doomed relationships with Mack Sennett and William Desmond Taylor, for in addition to being a captivating comedian, Normand was also an accomplished screenwriter, producer and director.

In the excellent 1979 book Hollywood: The Pioneers, author Kevin Brownlow writes of an incident on the Keystone Studios lot which gives us a taste of the misogyny that Normand was up against:

While working at Keystone, Normand was assigned to direct Charlie Chaplin who, according to Brownlow, was physically attracted to Mabel but “refused to acknowledge her competence.” When Normand rejected one of Chaplin’s gag ideas due to time constraints, Chaplin, Brownlow writes “refused to play the scene, and sat on the curb in a sulk.” (Source: Hollywood: The Pioneers (1979) by Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal, p. 143, Chapter 14).

The 1992 biopic Chaplin recreates this event but further disrespects Mabel by portraying her as a humorless nag instead of the professional that she was.

One of the true pioneers of the film industry, Mabel Normand deserves to be remembered for much more than her romantic relationships. And that’s no laughing matter.

By Heather Babcock, 2019

 

 

Silent Film Review: Pandora’s Box (1929)

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By Heather Babcock

 “The Greek Gods created a woman: Pandora. She was beautiful and charming, and versed in the art of flattery. But the gods also gave her a box containing all the evils of the world. The heedless woman opened the box, and all evil was loosed upon us.” – Pandora’s Box (1929) intertitle.

Unless you’re a silent film nerd like myself, you may not recognize the name Louise Brooks. However you most certainly are familiar with her iconic “Lulu” hairstyle: the shiny black bob with thick bangs. One of the most breathtakingly beautiful women of the silent era, Brooks had a natural charm and captivating screen presence that could only be matched by her “It-girl” peer Clara Bow and later, Bow’s successor Marilyn Monroe. Take it from me, just looking at photos of any of these women is a great endorphin booster.

The German silent film Pandora’s Box (1929) features Brooks at her most enchanting.

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” Norma Desmond famously exclaims in Sunset Boulevard (1950). Brooks’ performance in Pandora’s Box (1929) gives flesh to this sentiment as the actress communicates feelings of sorrow, joy, disappointment, contentment, sexual desire and fear all using her eyes. It is one of the most moving performances of the silent era that I have yet seen.

In Pandora’s Box (1929), Brooks plays Lulu, a beautiful vaudeville dancer being kept by a (much older) wealthy newspaper publisher named Dr. Ludwig Schön. Lulu is coy but honest; intelligent yet naïve. She is open with her love and affections and is much too easily hurt. When Schön tells her that they need to end their affair because he is going to marry another (more socially prominent and thus respectable) woman, Lulu playfully asks “You won’t kiss me just because you’re getting married?” When she sees that he means business, she sadly proclaims “You’ll have to kill me to get rid of me.” Schön’s son asks him why he won’t marry Lulu. “One doesn’t marry such women!” he replies. “It would be suicide!” His words prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy when, after being dumped by his socially prominent fiancée, Schön reluctantly ends up marrying Lulu. Angry because marriage doesn’t break the spirit of the flirtatious, lively Lulu (which is kind of like being pissed off at a fish because all it wants to do is swim all day), Schön, in one of the most terrifying and suspenseful scenes I have ever seen on film, puts a gun in Lulu’s hand. Pointing it toward her face, he demands that she kill herself so that she doesn’t “drive him to murder as well”. Lulu manages to turn the gun around on him instead and Schön attempts one final kiss before he succumbs to his death. On trial for murder, Lulu charms everyone in the courtroom, even the state prosecutor who finds himself briefly taken with her beauty before getting a hold of himself and accusing her of being “Pandora” – the first human woman in Greek mythology – the woman who unleashed “all the evils of the world”. He demands the death penalty and Lulu is sentenced to prison but she escapes with the help of her father and some of her friends. Later some of these so-called friends begin to blackmail Lulu – threatening to go to the police unless she provides them with large sums of money. One such “friend” threatens to sell her to a brothel for three-hundred pounds. “I won’t be sold,” the heartbroken Lulu pleads. “That’s worse than prison.” She flees to London where she lives with her father and a friend in a shabby, rundown flat. It is Christmas Eve and we see happy families in warm windows as a Salvation Army band plays Christmas carols in the streets. Lulu and her family’s Christmas feast consists of a small loaf of stale bread and her father’s bootleg whiskey. After her father sighs that he’d like to “taste Christmas pudding once more before I die”, Lulu makes herself up and goes out to walk the streets to find a trick. She passes a sign pasted to a lamppost which reads:

WARNING TO THE WOMEN OF LONDON: FOR SOME TIME NOW A MAN HAS BEEN LURING WOMEN INTO DARK PLACES IN ORDER TO MURDER THEM.

Ignoring the sign, Lulu reaches out through the smoky shadows to a lone, morose looking man, standing by the lamppost. “I have no money,” he tells her. “Come along anyway,” Lulu smiles, feeling generous on the holy night, “I like you!” The man tries to match Lulu’s friendly smile but he can only manage a maniacal, toothy grin. We don’t need to see the knife clutched behind his back to know that she is the lamb and he is the wolf. Back at her flat, she sits on his lap and he kisses her under the mistletoe, his eyes filled with desire, not for Lulu but for the knife on the table behind her; its blade gleaming beside a flickering prayer candle. We see a close-up of Lulu’s hand as it opens and then falls; the darkness snuffing out the candle’s flame. Jack the Ripper leaves her then to disappear within the shadows of the tinsel toting carolers outside, who are blissfully unaware of the devil in their midst.

Pandora’s Box (1929) is a terrifying film; director G.W. Pabst uses extreme close-ups to create an intimacy with the characters to rattling effect. As Lulu, Brooks’ vulnerability is so visceral that it is sometimes painful to watch while Gustav Diessl’s performance as Jack the Ripper is positively bone chilling.

“They want my blood. They want my life”, Lulu laments in one scene. The men around her pin their fantasies on her external beauty at the expense of the human being inside. Lulu finds herself trapped in the web of the male gaze and, to add insult to injury, is then unfairly accused of herself being the spider.

Pandora’s Box (1929) is an exploration of sexual politics but it is also a study of the struggle between good and evil – the movie asks, is it a battle or a dance?

– Heather Babcock

 

 

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

jean

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)

 

 

 

 

 

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