The bee's knees of 1920's and 1930's film and pop culture
Author: Heather Babcock
Heather Babcock has had short fiction published in many literary journals, including Descant Magazine and The Toronto Quarterly. In 2015, her chapbook "Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards" was published by DevilHousePress. Heather Babcock's debut novel "Filthy Sugar" is now available with Inanna Publications.
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On Sunday, October 23rd, I had the pleasure and honor of being the speaker at the 29thVintage 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!
My partner and I are looking forward to attending the 29th Vintage Film Festival at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. The Festival runs from Friday, October 21st – Sunday, October 23rd. I am honored to have been asked to be the speaker at the Festival’s Brown Bag Lunch seminar on the Sunday. I will be speaking on the topic of “Dangerous Dames: the Women of Pre-Code Gangster Movies”.
As such, I thought it was a good time to reshare an essay that I wrote a couple of years ago about one of my favorite “dames”, Jean Harlow. The essay, Jean Harlow: My Kind of Dame, was published in 2020 on the Inanna Publications’ blog. You can read it here.
One of the topics that I will be discussing during my talk is the importance of Harlow’s casting in the influential Pre-Code gangster movie The Public Enemy (1931).
Summer’s not over and neither is Inanna Publications summer book sale! If you’re looking for a summer read that is both sassy and saucy, may I suggest my novel Filthy Sugar, historical fiction set in a 1930’s burlesque house? And hey, once you’re done with the read you can always brush up on your 1930’s slang – there’s a glossary in the back! 😀
From now until September 3rd, use coupon code summer22 at checkout to get 25% off! (Good for BOTH paperbacks and e-books – swell!).
Even before they found the body, we talked about that girl.
“She looks like a cat,” my husband said, the day that Lola arrived in Gaslight Gables.
He had said it casually, almost dismissively, like the way you’d say “the sun’s come out” or “it’s gone cold outside.” But Lola did look like a cat, with her yellow hair, moon shaped eyes and sharp little teeth. And the way she moved! It was as though her body didn’t really belong to her, like it was just some exotic, fantastically shaped instrument hanging from her neck.
Lola liked to stare – she was always staring at everyone around her and if you smiled at her she’d never smile back, she’d just keep staring. I did see her smile once, only once, and I’d swear to you that when she did, razor blades fell out of her mouth.
On the day that the body was discovered, we clapped our hands to our cheeks like that kid from Home Alone and arranged our faces into Edvard Munch masks of horror.
“Shocking!” we cried, stuffing our fists into our mouths to keep from laughing. “It’s all so shocking!”
And long after the body had gone cold and the reporters went away, we still talked about Lola.
We talked about that girl until the blood dripped down our chins.
(This flash fiction was inspired by one of my favorite movies, Cat People (1942). I may eventually turn this into something longer…a novella perhaps.)
“There are certain things that simply do not belong on the screen. The subject matter of Scarface is one of them,” The Film Daily wrote in its 1932 review of the now-legendary gangster classic. “It should never have been made.”
Audiences disagreed but Scarface producers Howard Hughes and Howard Hawks (the latter also directed) knew that they would. As if to show their distaste for the Eighteenth Amendment, movie-goers in the 1920s and early 1930s hungered – or should I say, thirsted – for the gangster movie: in 1927, when Paramount Pictures released Underworld (arguably the Granddaddy of the gangster genre) theatres had to keep the film playing 24 hours a day just to keep up with public demand.
Warner Bros. began 1931 with a bang when they released the influential gangster movie Little Caesar in January of that year and The Public Enemy in the spring. Both films made household names of their leading men Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, respectfully. Scarface, distributed by United Artists, is the third film to fill out the “Holy Trinity” of the great pre-Code gangster movies and, like its beer-and-blood soaked predecessors, it made a star of its male lead, Paul Muni (as the Capone-inspired Tony Camonte), and co-star George Raft. However Scarface also boasts two of the most interesting performances by women in the gangster genre: Karen Morley as tough moll Poppy and, most decidedly, Ann Dvorak as Tony’s ambitious younger sister Cesca.
Picture F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with Al Capone as the protagonist and you have a pretty good idea of Scarface. Striking with its use of shadows and symbolism, Scarface is a tale of the American Dream…and in an America caught in the double fisted grip of Prohibition and the Great Depression, it’s a dream gone dangerously delirious – a dream fueled by buckets of bathtub gin; a dream which can be poisonous if taken straight. Stylish and visually dazzling, Scarface is in many ways a precursor to film noir, particularly in its opening scene which depicts – largely by the use of shadows – Tony killing a rival gang boss.
Although the role of Tony is obviously based on Capone, no one in the movie actually refers to him as “Scarface”; this is due to a compromise of sorts between Hughes and the Hays Office, who wanted Hughes to change the title of the film, fearing that it glamorized Capone (…or maybe they just feared Capone). Thankfully, Hughes kept the original title intact but removed all references to the name “Scarface” in the finished film. Even so, the movie was on Capone’s radar. According to Thomas Doherty in his fascinating book Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934, one of Capone’s henchmen told director Howard Hawks that “the Big Fellow” wanted to look over the picture. “The Big Shot will have to lay down his money at the box office if he wants to see Scarface,” the unflappable Hawks replied. Screenwriter Ben Hecht – who also co-wrote the script for Underworld – allegedly convinced Capone’s associates to become consultants on the movie.
“I feel like I’m being shoved into a corner”, Mickey Rooney (as Dan Brady) says during the final half of Quicksand (1950), “and if I don’t get out soon it will be too late.”
This one line neatly encapsulates the situation of most leading men in the film noir genre.
Sharply directed with flair by Irving Pichel, Quicksand tells the story of Dan Brady (Rooney), an aw-shucks, apple pie eating auto mechanic who’s biggest problem at the beginning of the movie is that his gorgeous girlfriend Helen (Barbara Bates) is getting too serious. “I spent four years in the Navy fighting for freedom, why get anchored down now?” he whines to his unsympathetic pals. “Some dames are sure hard to shake off,” his friend Buzz replies. Cue sexy blonde bombshell Vera (Jeanne Cagney) and the jazz saxophone soundtrack. With her trench coat, platinum Harlow locks and that quintessential Cagney swagger, she turns Dan away from his apple pie. Surprisingly, she agrees to a date but now Dan has another problem: it’s five days until payday and he’s flat busted – how’s he gonna show a swell dame like Vera a good time? Desperate and horny, Dan “borrows” twenty dollars from his employer’s cash register. The stolen dough leads him down a rabbit hole of crime and depravity.
In many ways, Quicksand is a Catholic parable: sexual desire leads to stealing and stealing leads to murder. But never mind the moralizing – Quicksand is a fun movie with a standout cast, making it one of the most enjoyable film noir films I have seen thus far.
Sandwiched between the silent movie Vamp and the Femme Fatale of 1940’s film noir, is the Bad Boy Gangster, who swaggered and strutted his way over the morally ambiguous terrain that was pre-Code Hollywood film. But make no mistake: pre-Code movies belonged to the ladies, or to put it more accurately, the New Woman.
WW1 changed everything – but its aftermath changed women in particular. The carnage of “the Great War” had depleted the number of eligible young men and the expectations that a young woman had previously taken for granted – a husband, children and a home – now seemed less likely for many. Becoming an independent “working girl” (whether that meant working in a dress shop or cleaning houses) was not a choice – it was a necessity. The independence didn’t stop there. By the end of 1922, almost all of the Canadian provinces had granted women the right to vote (it would not be until 1940 that women in Quebec would be granted full suffrage). In the USA, the 19th Amendment, ratified on August 18th and certified as law on August 26th of 1920, technically granted women suffrage although the fight for the right to vote was far from over for Black women in America.
In 1918, Marie Stopes’ controversial best selling book Married Love or Love in Marriage openly discussed methods of birth control, and it wasn’t just married women who read it. However it wasn’t until the economic depression of the 1930s that birth control gained wider acceptance. In his brilliant book The Great Depression 1929-1939, Pierre Berton writes that “after 1930 it began to be obvious that ignorance of birth control methods was causing hardship among the poor, who couldn’t afford large families. Deaths from illegal abortions, many self-induced, were on the rise.” As a result, the United Church formally endorsed birth control in 1936, with Rev. John Coburn stating that “every child had the right to come into the world wanted.” In Ontario, Canada, birth control advocate and social worker Dorothea Palmer, who was arrested – and later acquitted – in 1936 for canvassing the homes of impoverished mothers and asking them if they would like information on birth control, publicly stated that “a woman should be master of her own body. She should be the one to say if she should become a mother.”
Working girls. Voting rights. Birth control. The first wave of the women’s revolution coalesced with a new phenomenon: the movies. Mary Pickford. Clara Bow. Josephine Baker. Joan Crawford. Suddenly working class girls had something other than a man to pin their dreams on. Thanks to the validity of the movies and their wildly popular female stars, make-up was no longer “just for prostitutes” – plenty of “nice” girls now rouged their lips and painted their faces. Skirts were shorter and morals were looser…well, sort of.
Editor’s Note: Jeff Cottrill is a talented writer and spoken word artist. We met over a decade ago, as youngsters making our way in Toronto’s open mic scene. A fellow film buff, Jeff is one of my favorite people to talk movies with. So when he approached me about writing a guest post for the Soda Fountain, I knew it would be a great fit. Jeff’s debut novel Hate Story is being released from Dragonfly Publishing (Australia) in March 2022 and I was honored to read an ARC. Hate Story is a fresh, funny and original telling of the dark side of social media and internet shaming. Its heroine happens to be a movie blogger so the novel is sprinkled with lots of great references to classic and contemporary films. Read on for Jeff’s essay “Frank Capra: A Master of Comedy and Social Awareness”.
I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness. And a little lookin’ out for the other fella too.
James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
When many people hear the name Frank Capra today, chances are the only title they think of is It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). This movie is a timeless holiday favourite, but it’s a shame its reputation now outshines the rest of Capra’s filmmaking career – especially his pre-World War II movies, which are arguably better. Capra had a streak unmatched by any other director in the 1930s, winning three Academy Awards while helming classics like Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
Frank Capra is my favourite director from this era – or maybe tied with Charlie Chaplin. There are two important traits Capra and Chaplin have in common: their impeccable comedic timing, and their passionate social conscience. Many critics have dismissed Capra as a corny sentimentalist, but it’s really the comedy that brings his work to life, propped up by the wit of screenwriter Robert Riskin and the sharp delivery of actors like Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Thomas Mitchell, Lionel Barrymore and many others.
Take the whip-smart repartee that Gable and Colbert lob at each other in It Happened One Night. As Gable’s cynical reporter buses and hitchhikes across America with Colbert’s spoiled runaway heiress, the pair bicker and debate hilariously about everything from dunking donuts to piggybacking, with a speed and timing that surely influenced later romcoms. On the surface, the characters have nothing in common – but the energy they devote to each other reveals a deep connection, one of shared intelligent sarcasm, and you can’t help rooting for them to hook up.
Arthur and Stewart play off each other in a similar way in You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith, and Arthur had a knack for portraying jaded professional women with a hidden compassionate side. In both Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, Arthur’s character starts off mocking and patronizing the naive title hero – but once she gets to know him, she not only falls in love with his sincerity, but also becomes his number-one supporter. It sounds like an implausible fantasy, yet Arthur makes it work by staying smart, funny, fast-talking and worldly even while yielding to her inner sentiment. She’s no pushover; she thinks for herself and owns full agency over her decisions, in a way that may surprise modern viewers who expect dated sexism.
All Capra’s best movies centre on the theme of an ordinary man (the “Little Guy”) winning out against the big guns of the establishment. This theme was especially potent during the poverty and social upheaval of the Great Depression, but I think it’s even more relevant now – in the wake of the recent Occupy movement, and in an era of high wealth gaps and billionaires playing space tourism. Every Capra classic features a relatable lone hero who stands up for bedrock moral values against the corruption, egotism and greed around him – the kind of hero people wished for in the ’30s, and the kind we could use now.