Celebrating “Dangerous Dames” at the 29th Vintage Film Festival

Heather Babcock speaking at the 29th Vintage Film Festival on October 23rd at the Capitol Theatre. Photo by Neil Traynor.

On Sunday, October 23rd, I had the pleasure and honor of being the speaker at the 29th Vintage Film Festival’s Brown Bag Lunch Seminar.  I spoke on the topic of “Dangerous Dames: Celebrating the Women of Pre-Code Gangster Movies”.  My partner and I arrived in beautiful Port Hope on the Friday evening of the Festival so that we could take in some of the great classic films that the Festival had to offer.  Trust me, you haven’t seen Frankenstein (1931) until you’ve watched it under the twinkling “stars” of the magnificent Capitol Theatre!

Below, I have posted a condensed and edited version of my speech.  I want to thank Rick Hill, Rick Miller, the Marie Dressler Foundation and the Vintage Film Festival Committee for having given me this wonderful opportunity! 

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

In the dark, early days of the Great Depression, the public was badly in need of some escapism. They found it in the movies but they also found it in a real life young woman from Texas; a waitress/poet with a double-heart tattoo on the inside of her right thigh. Tattoos were very unusual for women in 1930, the year that this young woman hid a gun under her dress to smuggle into her boyfriend’s jail cell.  In April of 1933, photos of this dangerous dame were splashed across the newspapers. Leaning against a stolen car, gun at her hip, cigar wedged between her lips: the public had never seen a woman like Bonnie Parker before.

Except in the movies. 

Like many poor and working class girls of her time, Bonnie saw in the movies a way out of drudgery and poverty.  One wonders if she was influenced by Evelyn Brent, who plays Feathers McCoy, the tough moll with a heart of gold in the 1927 silent gangster epic Underworld, a film so popular that theatres had to keep it playing 24 hours a day just to keep up with audience demand. Perhaps during her crime spree with her boyfriend Clyde, Bonnie may have taken in a showing of the 1933 women’s prison drama Ladies they Talk About, which stars Barbara Stanwyck, an actress who could be both tough-as-nails and vulnerable at the same time, as a glamorous bank robber who also assists in organizing a jailbreak at a men’s prison. 

Real life gangsters loved gangster movies as much as the general movie-going public did. Maybe even more so.  John Dillinger was shot to death by federal agents outside a movie theatre after attending a showing of the MGM film Manhattan Melodrama, which stars Clark Gable as the dangerously sexy owner of an illegal casino.  It is rumored that screenwriter Ben Hecht convinced Al Capone’s associates to become consultants on the original 1932 movie Scarface. And if you saw Little Caesar last night, you’re familiar with Glenda Farrell who plays the lone woman in that movie, Olga. Olga is smart and savvy but she isn’t given a lot to do. Farrell would go on to portray street-wise, hard boiled dames in Busby Berkeley musicals and Warner Bros’ comedies with Joan Blondell; she’d also play a villain-type character in 1932’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. But in The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father’s Twentieth Century, Margaret Talbot’s biography of her father, actor Lyle Talbot, she recounts an amusing story about her father and Glenda’s encounter with  real life gangster Spike O’Donnell. Spike was a big fan of Lyle Talbot, particularly enjoying his performance as a bank robber in Ladies They Talk About. He invited Lyle and Glenda out for a night on the town but, as Lyle would later tell it, Glenda, who played tough dames on-screen, “took one look at Spike’s bodyguard and the gun that he had in his pocket and she nearly peed in her pants.”

As the Pre-Code era progressed, the roles for women in gangster movies became much more layered, complicated and interesting.  For those of you not familiar with the term, “Pre-Code” refers to Hollywood movies made between the period of 1930 until July of 1934, at the dawn of talkies and before the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code to govern the making of motion pictures. The Code was a very strict and rigid set of moral guidelines which dictated what could not be said or shown on screen. Although it was adopted in 1930, it wasn’t actually enforced until July 1934 so during this brief period of film making, which we call the Pre-Code era, filmmakers were permitted to take more risks and even encouraged to include more risqué and adult material in movies to “fill the seats” and entice the public away from radio, the movies’ big competitor then.

In the 1930s, movie studios catered to female audiences. Although she only has about a quarter of screen time compared to James Cagney, Jean Harlow’s face and name are prominent on the original posters for The Public Enemy. This is because Warner Bros. knew that having Harlow – the top fashion and beauty icon of her day – co-headline a gangster movie would ensure that girls and women would buy tickets to see what was commonly thought of as a male genre. 

Many of the women in these films are “good bad girls”, a term coined by Henry James Forman to describe a leading female character who combines “sweetness” with “loose morals.”  On film, the gangster gave the nice girl a safe way to explore her sexuality – blamelessly and with absolution.

We see this in Midnight Mary, when the sweet but impoverished Mary, played to perfection by Loretta Young, meets the flashy gangster Leo, portrayed by Ricardo Cortez.  All he has to do is give her a wink and Mary moves into Leo’s arms like a puppet on a string – but her smile tells us that this is exactly where she wants to be. 

In pre-Code movies, the men – whether they are laborers or sugar daddies – beg and barter for sex. Not so the gangster. The bad boys of pre-Code cinema have a sexual prowess that their law abiding counterparts can only dream of. After all, who but James Cagney could walk out on a lustful and sexy dame like Jean Harlow, as he does in The Public Enemy?

 In the 1931 film A Free Soul, Norma Shearer plays Jan, the high society daughter of a defense lawyer who embarks on a sexual relationship with a mobster, played by Clark Gable. The chemistry between Shearer and Gable is explosive. Shearer in particular is strikingly sensual – she’s clearly naked under her expensive fancy gowns. She proclaims Gable the “most exciting man” she’s ever met and breaks off her engagement with her nice-guy fiancé portrayed by Leslie Howard (movie buffs will see foreshadowing of Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes here). “I just don’t want to get married, I don’t want life to settle around me like a pan of sourdough” Jan says at one point. Interestingly although she and Gable are like big cats circling each other, the sexually confident Shearer is clearly the alpha.  “Don’t women ever want to talk?” an exhausted Gable asks her.

In both A Free Soul and Midnight Mary, the gangster is punished for sullying the morals of the good-bad girl protagonists and like his femme fatale successor of 1940’s film noir, his punishment is death. 

Clark Gable’s character is shot in the heart by Leslie Howard in A Free Soul when he threatens to spread it all over town that Jan is no longer a virgin. Of course, Howard’s character is acquitted – in the movies of the 1930s, disgracing the reputation of a respectable, upper class lady is worse than committing murder. 

Loretta Young takes matters into her own hands in Midnight Mary. When bad boy Leo threatens to kill the nice-guy lawyer whom Mary has fallen in love with, she picks up a gun and shoots him point blank. The nice guy then becomes her counsel and helps her to avoid the electric chair. In Midnight Mary, love doesn’t just save the good-bad girl’s soul, it saves her life.

Mae Clarke

Unfortunately the molls in Pre-Code gangster movies didn’t always have the upper hand which leads us to probably the most infamous on-screen moll of all time, played by Mae Clarke, the lovely and talented actress who gets a grapefruit smashed in her face by James Cagney in The Public Enemy.  Mae Clarke’s name became so synonymous with ‘grapefruit’ that the LA times mentions the fruit in the headline for her obituary. But she deserves to be known for so much more.  Clarke is arguably the most talented actress of the Pre-Code era and inarguably the most underrated. 1931 was a great year for her. Apart from the Public Enemy, she also had memorable roles that year in The Front Page and Frankenstein (I like to think of Mae as the original scream queen). But her most outstanding performance is in the original Waterloo Bridge, released that same year and directed by Frankenstein director James Whale (whom Mae described as “a perfect gentleman”). Mae has the starring role in this film as a self-loathing prostitute who falls in love with an innocent soldier and believes herself unworthy of his affections. Her performance is powerful and heartbreaking and it makes you wonder if Mae was born in the wrong decade – her natural acting style and subtle beauty would probably have been more appreciated in the 1970’s era of the director, than in the flashy 1930s.  It is telling that Cagney’s character drops Mae like a hot potato the moment he spots platinum blonde Jean Harlow in The Public Enemy.

But back to that grapefruit. There are many, many stories surrounding the grapefruit scene but the only one I care about is Mae’s. She gave two slightly different versions of how the grapefruit scene came about: in a 1983 interview with American Classic Screen magazine, Mae said that the script originally called for Cagney throwing the grapefruit at her and then storming out. Director William Wellman and Cagney however felt that this wasn’t quite working so they took Mae aside and asked if she would be okay with Cagney pushing the grapefruit in her face. Mae said she didn’t like the idea but agreed to do it on the condition that the scene be shot once and with no retakes. However in interviews for her oral autobiography, given two years before she died in 1992, she said that James Cagney and Wellman asked her to do it as a practical joke on the crew and that it wasn’t supposed to be in the picture. Whatever the case, we know that Mae hated the grapefruit scene, found it extremely humiliating and upsetting and said on more than one occasion that she wished she had never agreed to do it. The most criminal thing about The Public Enemy, is that Mae Clarke did not even receive a screen credit!  

Mae would go on to work with Cagney in two more films: in 1933’s Lady Killer, she plays a hustler who invites Cagney to join her gang.  For all of his incredible charisma and talent, on-screen romance wasn’t really Cagney’s forte but in Lady Killer, he shares a playful sexual chemistry with Mae, which he rarely had with his other leading ladies (the other notable exception being Joan Blondell). Jimmy and Mae had a lot of respect and admiration for each other. By 1936, Mae’s career was at a standstill but Cagney insisted on her for his female lead in The Great Guy, a crime film noir. In 1974 at the presentation for James Cagney’s AFI Life Achievement Award, Mae stood up and said that Jimmy was both a “lady killer” and a “great guy”.  

The “good bad girl” is very symbolic of the newfound freedoms that women had achieved by the early 1930s, as well as the anxiety surrounding those freedoms: women were more independent after WW1, a result of the large number of eligible men wiped out during that “great war”; they now had the right to vote; sexual mores were changing; and the economic realities of the Great Depression challenged the taboos surrounding birth control methods and such methods became more accessible to the average woman (although not without a lot of push-back and unfortunately usually for married women only).  It was high time for a woman to step into the gangster’s shoes and she does so brilliantly in two of the best and most interesting films of the genre:

In Scarface, Ann Dvorak portrays Cesca, the younger sister of the violent and powerful gangster Tony Camonte, famously played by Paul Muni. The relationship between brother and sister is one of the most fascinating and disturbing elements of Scarface. Tony is fiercely protective of his younger sister – to the point of perversion. Surprisingly, the incestuous nature of Cesca and Tony’s relationship was actually encouraged – or at the very least not discouraged – by the Hays Office, perhaps because the censors liked that it put the gangster in an unflattering light. More interesting than this salacious element though is the idea that Cesca is the mirror of Tony. In the beginning of the film, their mother warns Cesca that she is “becoming just like” her brother and throughout the film other characters also compare Cesca to Tony. “Why didn’t you shoot me, huh?” Tony asks her towards the movie’s end. “Maybe because you’re me and I’m you,” Cesca replies before picking up a machine-gun to help Tony ward off the approaching coppers. 

In 1933, Warner Brothers put a feminine twist on the gangster genre with Blondie Johnson, a rags to bullets tale starring the smart and sassy Joan Blondell as Blondie: a tough as nails dame who rises from impoverishment to wealth and power as the city’s “peroxide mobster”. In Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, it’s a hunger for power that drives the male protagonists to crime. For Blondie, it is simply hunger, as she turns to crime after her welfare application is turned down.  As always, the charismatic, talented and charming Joan Blondell is an absolute joy to watch.  Unfortunately her likability is probably the reason for the movie’s happy – and sappy – ending: there was no way that Warner Brothers’ was going to have one of their most popular female stars being shown shot to death in the street, as Edward G. Robinson is in Little Caesar.  Audiences wouldn’t have stood for it.  So Blondie gets a second chance and sadly, that’s probably the reason that this movie is mostly forgotten about today as it lacks the explosive endings of Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and Scarface.  Still, Blondie Johnson is one of the brightest hidden gems of Pre-Code’s gangster cinema and you wonder, if the Code had not been enforced, what types of films may have followed in its footsteps.

Note: This was a much shortened and condensed version of my 30 minute speech, which was followed by a Q&A.

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