Let ‘em Eat Grapefruit: The Fierce Martyrdom of Mae Clarke

my girlfriend

“I’m sorry I ever agreed to do the grapefruit bit.” – Mae Clarke

In black & white film, Mae Clarke inhabited the grey zone exclusive to Pre-Code cinema. “Nice Girl”, “Bad Girl”, “Hooker with a Heart of Gold”: Clarke’s characters never stayed still long enough to fit into easy Hollywood tropes. She wouldn’t let them.

Sexy but too sophisticated for cheesecake and yet too edgy to be a sophisticate, Mae’s defiance at being easily defined is probably one of the reasons why her career waned with the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in July of 1934.

In 1931 though, during Hollywood’s bold Pre-Code era, Mae was at the height of her career, delivering memorable performances in four important films which continue to awe, inspire and influence today: Frankenstein, The Front Page, Waterloo Bridge and The Public Enemy.  In three of these films Mae comes to a bad end; in one she dies, in two she narrowly escapes death and in the fourth she famously endures a degrading humiliation. In all four movies, Mae portrays tragic figures who derive little pleasure and much pain from their romantic attachments.

Here I will explore Mae’s most famous roles. Interestingly, Mae was rumored to be author Anita Loos’ inspiration for bubbly blonde showgirl Lorelei Lee in her 1925 novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, suggesting that perhaps Mae’s real life personality contradicted her somber onscreen presence. Continue reading “Let ‘em Eat Grapefruit: The Fierce Martyrdom of Mae Clarke”

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Before there was Baby Jane, there was Fanny Skeffington…(Review of Mr. Skeffington, 1944)

one and only bette

By Heather Babcock

“One should never look for admirers while at the same time one is falling to bits.” – Fanny Skeffington (Bette Davis)

Mr. Skeffington (1944) is kind of like a granola bar – it looks super healthy and good for you but in reality it’s filled with about as many empty calories as a chocolate bar.

Released during World War II, Mr. Skeffington spans thirty years, beginning in 1914 and ending during the film’s present day of 1944. This means that the film’s star, the inimitable Bette Davis, gets to wear lavish period costumes designed by Orry-Kelly. All of the silks, feathers, furs and frills are enough to make any fashion enthusiast’s mouth water. Continue reading “Before there was Baby Jane, there was Fanny Skeffington…(Review of Mr. Skeffington, 1944)”

The Public Enemy (1931) and the Real-Life Pain of Losing a Sibling

siblings

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 with 1927’s The Jazz Singer, began 1931 with a bang when they released the gangster talkie Little Caesar, a film so popular that theaters had to keep it running 24 hours a day just to satisfy audience demand. Riding the wave of gunfire, Warner Brothers followed Little Caesar with The Public Enemy, released in April of 1931. Considered one of the most influential gangster films of all time, The Public Enemy starred firecracker James Cagney, shooting his words out quicker than bullets from a Tommy gun as Tom Powers, a nasty bootlegger bending Prohibition – and the streets of Chicago – to his will.

For all of its violence, guns (and grapefruit), The Public Enemy is at its core a movie about family. The script was adapted from Kubec Glasmon and John Bright’s novel Beer and Blood and that title sums up all of Tom’s world: his “beer” family of bootleggers and his “blood” family, played here by Beryl Mercer as his naïve, loving mother and Donald Cook as his conservative big brother Mike.

The relationship between brothers Tom and Mike is interesting. It is complicated and intense in the way that relationships between real-life siblings often are. Tom Powers may thumb his nose at Mike’s responsible lifestyle (“He’s too busy going to school – he’s learning how to be poor”) but the hard-core gangster – who can literally shoot a man in the back before calling his moll up for a date – doesn’t defend himself when his disapproving brother gives him a sock in the jaw (and the punch was reportedly real – Cook hit Cagney so hard that Cagney cracked a tooth).

No matter how many times I have seen it, the ending of The Public Enemy always shakes me to the core. A repentant Tom Powers reconciles with his mother and Mike. He is in the hospital after a violent shoot-out and he vows to leave the gangster lifestyle behind and return home to them.  His mother and Mike jubilantly prepare for his homecoming just as Tom is kidnapped by rival gangsters. In the film’s final scene, Mike opens the door, expecting Tom, only to be greeted by his brother’s mummified corpse being tossed onto his mother’s living room floor. In shock and pummeled with grief, Mike slowly lurches toward the camera as the needle on a phonograph scratches over a now forgotten record.

This scene hits me on a personal level because that is exactly how it feels to lose a sibling: it is a record that never stops skipping. It is a song that never plays out.

Two years after I lost my sister and long before I ever saw The Public Enemy, I wrote a long poem titled “Making Words” as both a tribute to her and also as a way to work through my bereavement. I too used the image of a broken record as a symbol for my grief:

I was the one who had to make it into words for Mom.  You know that.  You were there, sitting on top of her stereo, hiding behind her cat and thinking that I couldn’t see you.

You were the one scratching the needle over the record; the song was Daydream Believer and it started skipping.  The Monkees stopped dancing.  Mom’s heart opened up and swallowed the words and I couldn’t reach her anymore.

That’s what gets me too about the ending of The Public Enemy: knowing that Mike will have to be the one to tell Ma that her baby is never coming home.

I know how that feels and this is why The Public Enemy is such a personal film for me. Like Mike and Tom, the relationship between my own sister and I was rocked by sibling rivalry but anchored with love.

Happy Birthday, Clara Bow!

girlfriend birthday

By Heather Babcock

“I’m a curiosity in Hollywood. I’m a big freak because I’m myself.” – Clara Bow

“The girl…blossomed in a mud puddle,” wrote Stephen Crane of his eponymous heroine in his 1892 novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

Crane’s sentiment could just as easily apply to Clara Bow, born thirteen years later, on July 29th, 1905.

If the term “It Girl” makes you think of spoiled blonde socialites clutching yappy little Chihuahuas while spilling out of stretch limousines, you may be surprised to learn that the original “It Girl” was born 114 years ago in a Brooklyn tenement, in a neighborhood populated by prostitutes, dope peddlers and assorted criminals of both the soft and hard core variety. In fact, Clara Bow was not expected to live at all. Her mother went into labor during a brutal heatwave which shot the infant mortality rate in the tenement district up to around eighty percent. Clara was the third child of Robert and Sarah Bow; their first daughter had died three days after her birth while their second child lived for only two hours. When Clara Bow was born, her impoverished young parents were so certain that she would not survive that they didn’t even bother obtaining a birth certificate.

But not only did Clara survive; she thrived. Continue reading “Happy Birthday, Clara Bow!”

We Are the Weirdos, Mister.

theda bara

We are the weirdos, mister.”

 After Nancy (Fairuza Balk) uttered the infamous line in The Craft (1996), the audience at last night’s Revue Cinema screening burst into fervent applause.  Many in attendance were in their thirties and forties and probably, like me, nostalgia-tripping former teenage outcasts.

As a lonely, imaginative girl, I loved was obsessed with The Craft and its story of four teenage witches, played by Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True and Robin Tunney, who use their powers to wreak havoc on the dumb jocks and the mean girls at their Catholic high school.  In 1996, there were very few spaces where teenage girls could feel powerful.  We were told (by society, television and YM magazine) that the only way to obtain any sort of power was through our physical appearance and our relationships with boys: two things that were beyond our control since you can’t really dictate how someone else sees or reacts to you. And any “power” based on physical beauty is precarious when we live in a society that equates being beautiful with being young. If beauty is power and youth is beauty, than that power is ephemeral.  I knew that when I was 16 and I know that now. One of the very few media outlets in the 1990s where teenage girls did have a voice was the fiercely fun and feminist Sassy Magazine, which sadly folded in 1996. The Craft filled a void. The vicarious power-fantasy fulfillment was enough to (almost) forgive and forget its disappointingly anti-feminist ending.

The witches in The Craft are direct descendants of Theda Bara (pictured), the silver screen’s first “bad girl” and the woman who made the word “vamp” both a noun and a verb. In A Fool There Was (1915), the film that catapulted her to fame, Bara chews up scenery (and men) as a liquor pushing, sexually aggressive vampire. This vamp doesn’t drink blood though: rather Bara slowly drains the will to live from her male victims by eating away at their dignity. “Kiss me, my fool!” she famously purrs but beware: her kiss renders “respectable” men destitute and depraved. Buried alive under the rubble of their broken lives, still her victims beg her for more. Bara’s appetite for destruction is never satiated and, unlike Nancy in The Craft, she never loses her power.

– Heather Babcock

 

 

Burning Up the Motion Picture Production Code: Some Like It Hot (1959)

some like it hot for sure

By Heather Babcock

There is a scene in Some Like It Hot (1959) which never fails to elicit rapturous sighs from both my boyfriend and I:

On the run after accidentally witnessing a gangland massacre, musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are going undercover as “Josephine” and “Daphne”, the newest (and the most stylish) members of an all-girl jazz band. They’re about to board their train to Florida when they spot Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s voluptuous lead singer and ukulele player. “Look at that! Look how she moves,” Daphne whispers, admiring Sugar’s sumptuous strut. “It’s just like jello on springs!

My boyfriend’s awe is directed at the devilish wiggle and angelic beauty of Marilyn Monroe, and while I certainly can understand (and share) his admiration, my own sighs are reserved for the gorgeous outfits adorned by Curtis’ haughty and elegant Josephine and Lemmon’s sassy jazz-baby Daphne.

In a 2001 interview with Leonard Maltin, Tony Curtis, who based the refined Josephine on his mother and Grace Kelly, revealed that after he and Jack had unsuccessfully tried on the cast-off dresses of Debbie Reynolds and Norma Shearer, he approached the film’s director/producer Billy Wilder and asked if the famed costume and gown designer Orry-Kelly could custom make their wardrobe. The results were breathtakingly fabulous. Continue reading “Burning Up the Motion Picture Production Code: Some Like It Hot (1959)”

Bullets and Bombshells: Blondie Johnson (1933)

Blondie gang

By Heather Babcock (2019)

“I know all the answers and I know what it’s all about. I found out that the only thing worthwhile is dough. And I’m gonna get it, see.” – Blondie Johnson (Joan Blondell)

Move over James Cagney. In 1933, Warner Brothers put a feminine twist on their popular gangster genre with Blondie Johnson, a rags to bullets tale starring the smart and sassy Joan Blondell as the titular Blondie: a tough as nails beauty who – in a rare move for a Pre-Code film – uses her brains rather than her body, rising from impoverishment to wealth and power as the city’s biggest – and smartest – crime boss.

In Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), it was a hunger for power that drove the male protagonists to crime.  For Blondie, it’s simply hunger.

Blondie Johnson (1933) opens in a Welfare and Relief Association office where our down-on-her-luck heroine is begging for help for herself and her sick mother, who have just been kicked out of their tenement. (We know at first glance that Blondie is down-on-her-luck because she isn’t wearing any lipstick and her stockings have runs in them – in 1930’s movies, no make-up and torn stockings symbolize destitution.)  When the welfare agent curtly asks her to state her case, Blondie explains that she’s been out of work for four months after having to quit her job because of sexual harassment. “He wouldn’t leave me alone,” she says of her former boss. “So you quit,” the agent replies indifferently, his tone soaked with victim blaming. He then rejects her welfare application. Demoralized, Blondie looks hopelessly at the other welfare applicants awaiting their fate. The camera pans over tired, rain drenched souls in broken shoes and threadbare clothing; all the stuffing yanked out of them, their bodies slumped over like Capitalism’s discarded toys.  These are the faces of the Great Depression and the images bring to mind the work of photographer Dorothea Lange. This scene alone is a bold move for a popcorn flick that was released during a time when theaters shied away from showing any newsreel footage of breadlines and poverty. Unflinching realism is a staple of Warner Brothers’ Pre-Code movies.  You would never see such a scene in an MGM film. Continue reading “Bullets and Bombshells: Blondie Johnson (1933)”