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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
One of my favorite aspects of Pre-Code Hollywood film is what I like to call “the Pre-Code Peep Show”. These scenes, in which one or more of the film’s actresses disrobe for the camera, are a staple of Hollywood movies made between 1929 and July of 1934. Usually the “Pre-Code Peep Show” has absolutely nothing to do with the plot; take for example Joan Blondell helping Barbara Stanwyck with her stockings in Night Nurse (1931) or Jean Harlow wiggling out of her blouse and skirt in Red-Headed Woman (1932) and giving the audience a glimpse of her naked right breast in the process. Sometimes however, the leading lady strips to reveal more than just her flesh, such as when Bette Davis gets naked in order to further secure her tight grip on Richard Barthelmess in the proletariat drama The Cabin in the Cotton (1932). One of my favorite such scenes is the introduction of Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932): After being rescued from an abusive john by the “good doctor” (Fredric March), the flirtatious Ivy lifts her skirts, ostensibly to show Dr. Jekyll a bruise, while exposing her garter and bare thigh. Jekyll chides her for wearing “so tight a garter – it’s bad for you, it – uh – impedes the circulation.” (Nudge nudge, wink wink) He suggests bed rest and Ivy, smiling at the camera, slowly lifts her skirts, revealing her black stockings and beribboned garters. She gleefully kicks off her high-heeled shoes, peels off her right garter belt and, giggling, tosses it toward the camera. The camera pans to the garter at Dr. Jekyll’s feet before moving back to Ivy, now naked under a white, doily-like bedspread. “Come back soon, won’t ya?” she purrs to Jekyll, swinging her bare leg over the side of the bed like the hand of a clock. “Soon”. Her shapely leg continues to dangle in double exposure as Jekyll departs: a hypnotist’s pendulum.
November is shaping up to be an exciting month for Filthy Sugar! My debut novel, which is set in a burlesque theater during the mid-1930s, was recently reviewed by the Historical Novel Society. What an honor!
Bonnie DeMoss of the Historical Novel Society writes:
“This is an extremely sensual work of art with very mature themes, exquisitely written by Heather Babcock. The characters are real and raw.”
You can read the full review on the Historical Novel Society website here.
Currently available in both paperback and e-book forms, Filthy Sugar will soon be accessible as an audiobook, on all digital platforms, to be released November 15, 2020. I have already heard the audio tapes, narrated by accomplished voice actress Jacqueline Pillon, and they are wonderful! Ms. Pillon really captured Wanda’s spunk and essence.
Filthy Sugar was inspired by the Pre-Code period of Hollywood film and, in particular, the feisty dames of these movies, such as Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck. I hope you’ll check it out!
Brazen and busty, Wanda Wiggles, the star of Filthy Sugar, has taken the burlesque world by a storm! She’s been described by the Underwood bangers as both a “voluptuous dream sweeter than a whipped cream strawberry sundae” and a “Vengeful Vamp”. Here at the Soda Fountain, we thought it was high time to sit down with the rebellious redhead herself. So we put on our best negligee, broke out the rotary dial telephone and gave Ms. Wiggles a call on the horn. Join us below as we discuss everything from burlesque to brassieres and bathtub gin with the infamous hoofer!