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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When you think of a Prohibition-era gangster, what image immediately comes to mind? Is it Al Capone and the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre? Is it John Dillinger being shot to death by federal agents outside the Biograph Theater? Or is it Edward G. Robinson, a cigar anchored between his lips, imploring us to “Be Somebody!”; is it James Cagney shooting his words out quicker than bullets from a Tommy gun?
For me it’s Robinson and Cagney, in Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931) respectively, who best embody the slick anti-hero in all of his brutal brilliance, better even than the real-life gangsters themselves.
But before Cagney and Robinson shook up the game, there was a different kind of on-screen gangster.
And he was mighty cuddly.
In Thunderbolt (1929), George Bancroft plays Thunderbolt Jim Lang, a gangster sentenced to death, who bides his time in prison by plotting revenge on the bank teller (Richard Arlen) who stole his moll (Fay Wray). If this sounds gritty, it isn’t – the intensely likable Bancroft is a cross between James Cagney and Oliver Hardy and the hijinks he gets up to in Thunderbolt have more in common with the latter’s comedy shorts with Stan Laurel than they do with The Public Enemy. In the New York Times’ 1929 review of the film, writer Mordaunt Hall describes Thunderbolt as “a musical comedy plot striving to masquerade as a drama.” But it isn’t the film’s plot that makes it interesting but rather when it was made: during Hollywood’s turbulent transition from silent movies to “talkies” (sound films), a period which has been well documented in films such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and most recently in Babylon (2022).
During Hollywood’s classic age, the MGM studio boasted that it had “more stars than there are in Heaven.” Even so, not one of their stars shone brighter – or harder – than Joan Crawford.
Just like Sadie Thompson, the character she expertly portrays in the drama Rain (1932), Joan Crawford was both passionate and fearless. Fiercely independent, unapologetically ambitious and proudly bisexual, Joan challenged society’s expectations of ideal womanhood. The more of her work that I discover, the more that I come to admire her.
Born Lucille Fay LeSuer (her name was changed by MGM publicity head Pete Smith for obvious reasons), Joan Crawford was – no doubt about it – gorgeous, yet her perfect bone structure is not what I think of when I think of Joan; rather it is her strength and inexhaustible career drive which first come to mind. Still, her beauty was so intoxicating that in the 1927 Tod Browning film The Unknown, in which Joan plays a carnival worker who is terrified of being touched by a man, it’s totally believable that Lon Chaney amputates both of his arms in the hopes of scoring a chance with her.
“Crawford was weaned on abuse and rejection,” Mick LaSalle writes in his excellent book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. “Two daddies deserted the family before she was ten. While still a child, she cleaned toilets in a boarding school for girls and was disciplined with a broom handle.”
Joan’s career spanned five decades and five important periods of film history: silent movies, the Pre-Code era, the Code era (aka “classic Hollywood” or “Hollywood’s Golden Age”), television and finally, the so-called “hagsploitation” and B-movies of the 1960s.
Of them all, her silent movie period is my favorite, probably because these films seem to exist in an impenetrable bubble, safe from the slings and arrows of Mommie Dearest. Yet even in the B-movies that she starred in at the end of her long career – films that she later admitted she knew were mostly terrible – Joan always gave it her all, never once phoning it in; as if she still had something to prove. Perhaps she had never really left Lucille behind.
The following quotes about Joan, from some of her contemporaries, reveal the complexities of a woman whose legacy is as complicated as her star power is enduring.
Editor’s Note: Although “Meet Me at the Soda Fountain” tends to focus on films from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, I do sometimes let a film from the later part of the 20th century slide through – hey, if TCM can do it, so can I! 😉
Gremlins (1984) will always hold a special place in my heart: it’s the first film that I ever saw in a movie theater. My parents took my sister and I to see it at the old Cineplex Eaton Centre when we were kids. At ages four and six respectively, we were so young that our sneakers barely touched the sticky floors and when Spike (the leader of the Gremlins) leapt out of a Christmas tree, my sister literally jumped out of her seat.
“That’s it!” my father exclaimed. “We’re going home!”
I feigned annoyance at my sister for causing me to miss the rest of the movie but the truth was that I was petrified of the “little green monsters” too. For at least the next five years, I would sleep with the covers pulled tightly over my head so that “the gremlins couldn’t get me”. (And to this day the Johnny Mathis Christmas song Do You Hear What I Hear? fills me with unspeakable terror).
“I thought it was supposed to be a kid’s movie,” my dad grumbled on the drive home. Well, Gremlins iskind of a kid’s movie and it also kind of isn’t. The film tells the tale of Billy (Zach Galligan), a wide-eyed teenager whose father gifts him with a mysterious (and adorable) pet for Christmas. The creature is a “Mogwai” (Billy’s father names him Gizmo) and he comes with three rules:
1. No bright lights, especially sunlight as it can kill him.
2. Keep him away from water: don’t get him wet.
3. Don’t feed him after midnight. *
Needless to say, the good-intentioned but slightly clueless Billy breaks all three rules and before you can say “holy night”, hordes of little green monsters, with a penchant for junk food and wreaking havoc on electronics, have descended upon the sleepy town of Kingston Falls on Christmas Eve.
Gremlins is one of those rare instances where contrasting (even conflicting) ingredients work together to create a compelling and satisfying treat: it is both a horror movie and a comedy. Its biting social satire works in spite of the fact that the movie contains a ridiculous amount of product placement (“Milk Duds…”) and was released on the heels of a huge merchandising campaign that included Gizmo dolls and Gremlins’ gummy bears (hence why my dad expected a warm and fuzzy kid’s flick).
The film has also proven itself to be prescient. Some of the characters in Kingston Falls express a fear of machines and redevelopment – today those fears are being actualized in self-checkout machines, automation and job loss and lack of affordable housing. Then there’s the very real horror of the disastrous effect that all of that post-World War II consumerism has had on our environment. “With Mogwai comes much responsibility,” Mr. Wing (Keye Luke) admonishes near the end of the film, “But you didn’t listen. And you see what happens! You do with Mogwai what your society has done with all of nature’s gifts.”
The moviecloses with Billy’s father (Hoyt Axton) warning the audience: “If your air conditioner goes on the fritz or your washing machine blows up or your video recorder conks out…before you call the repairman, turn on all the lights, check all the closets and cupboards, look under all the beds. Because ya never can tell – there just might be a gremlin in your house.”
Gremlins manages to be both a critique and a celebration of consumerism. Making it the perfect modern Christmas movie.
*If you can’t feed the Mogwai after midnight, when can you start feeding him? At dawn? At noon? Does anyone know? I annoy my partner every Christmas with this burning question.
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.