From Dreams to Dust: Oh, the Movies You Will Never See!

2020-07-24 (6)

I was once asked, while volunteering for a film review website, to list the “Top Ten Greatest Films of all Time.” Of course, a “great film” is subjective but that wasn’t the only reason why I found the task daunting: cinematographic motion pictures have been around since at least the late 1890s, leaving us with – what should be – an almost limitless scope of films to watch and choose from. 

I say “what should be”, because many Silent (an estimated 80-90%) and Pre-Code movies are now considered lost.

Most Silent films were made using cellulose nitrate film stock. Nitrate stock flares up quickly – a lit cigarette nearby is enough to set it off – and can even spontaneously combust if stored improperly. The film is so flammable that it burns even when immersed in water. In 1949, nitrate was replaced by acetate safety stock but by then innumerable silent movies had already burned to death – their filmmaker’s stories forever extinguished by flames.

And sometimes they were destroyed on purpose.

Studios, not believing that future audiences would have any interest in “old” movies, junked the films to free up vault space. Not all were set on fire though: several tons of Silent movies were dumped into the Yukon river while others were used as filler for swimming pools and ice rinks.  

2020-07-24 (4)

(The 1919 film version of Anne of Green Gables, starring a pre-scandal Mary Miles Minter, is now considered lost)

North American society has always been “out with the old, in with the new”, but Hollywood in particular took an almost sadistic pleasure in denigrating Silent movies – essentially eating its first born. Take for example the popular musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952), a film which slanders the reputation of Silent movies as much as it celebrates the music of early talkies. In Singin’ in the Rain, Silent films are portrayed as ridiculously melodramatic period dramas. The film takes the same view as its female lead, the squeaky clean, all-American chorus girl Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who, while exaggerating pantomime, sums up silent movie actors this way: They don’t talk, they don’t act – they just make a lot of dumb show.” She goes on to state that “real” acting means wonderful lines, speaking glorious words!”. But any creative writing instructor worth their salt will tell you that it’s better to “show” than “tell”. Kathy Selden has obviously never seen Lon Chaney’s heartbreaking performance as a depressed circus clown in the deliciously demented He Who Gets Slapped (1924) or John Gilbert’s anguished soldier in the glorious WW1 drama The Big Parade (1925). Clara Bow did not need sound when she defined the roaring twenties as a vivacious shop girl in the romantic comedy It (1927). Sometimes talk is just…noise.

So why did Hollywood desecrate its early work? Well, the dominance of sound on film coincided with the stock market crash of 1929 and talkies, in comparison to silent films, were damned expensive to produce. My guess is that Hollywood was trying to justify the expense.

When the amended Production Code “to govern the making of motion and talking pictures” took effect on July 1st, 1934, many talkies suffered a similar fate to their silent sisters, such as the popular Pre-Code sex comedy Convention City (1933). Convention City, which its star Joan Blondell called “the raunchiest thing there has ever been”, was condemned under the amended Code and its studio, Warner Brothers, ordered that all prints be destroyed.  Today, Convention City (1933) is considered the Holy Grail of Pre-Code films. 

2020-07-24 (2)

“We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts because, otherwise, we are going to have these pictures stopped in a lot of places. I believe in showing their forms but, for Lord’s sake, don’t let those bulbs stick out.” – Studio memo from Jack L. Warner to Convention City’s producer Hal Wallis. (The lovely Joan Blondell pictured). 

Still, many films – such as Paramount’s Clara Bow collection – were left to languish in locked vaults for decades; celluloid dreams disintegrating into dust.

So although I know that there are still plenty of great movies that I have yet to see, I sadly fear that there are many more that I will never see, such as Cleopatra (1917) a film which, thanks to the surviving still images of a wickedly wanton Theda Bara in the title role, has managed to achieve iconic status in spite of being considered lost.

It is heartening to remember though that films considered “lost” are sometimes “found”. For example, in 2015 a complete reel was discovered of The Battle of the Century (1927), Laurel and Hardy’s ultimate pie fight, after the original film had degenerated. In April 2017, The Toronto Silent Film Festival screened the film (complete with live musical accompaniment by Ben Model and a real pie throwing!) at the Revue Cinema. I consider myself very lucky to have been in attendance (and doubly lucky not to have gotten hit by one of the pies!).

 

Check your attics and basements – you never know, you might just find a lost cinematic gem!

Written by Heather Babcock, 2020

Book Review: Filthy Sugar by Heather Babcock

Please check out Zoe Krainik’s wonderful review of Filthy Sugar on her fabulous blog “Hollywood Genes”.

Hollywood Genes

edDSC_6273

Heather Babcock’s debut novel, Filthy Sugar, is a hot fudge sundae that doesn’t skimp on the cherries. Delicious and rich in detail, with a heroine to match, Filthy Sugar seamlessly incorporates the best parts of the naughty and rule breaking Pre-Code Hollywood film era with the author’s own flair for imagery and language.

Redhead Depression-era bombshell Wanda Whittle is straining in her corset to escape her limited rooming house existence in the slums behind the Market, where she lives with her world-weary mother and pro-union sister Evelyn.

While modeling fur coats in a department store, Wanda’s body positive confidence and zigzag curves make an impression on wealthy patron Mr. Manchester, the owner of the Apple Bottom burlesque theatre. A smitten Wanda accepts the job as a performer alongside peach scented cutie Lili Belle and smoldering sophisticate Queenie. Now dubbed Wanda Wiggles, she must navigate this sexy new world, where…

View original post 235 more words

Filthy Sugar is an All Lit Up Summer Reads Staff Pick!

20200704_173140

As my heroine Wanda Wiggles would say, this sure is swell!

My debut novel, Filthy Sugar, has been chosen by All Lit Up as a Summer Reads 2020 staff pick!

Filthy Sugar takes place in a sexy burlesque theatre in the early 1930s and is my homage to the feisty dames of Pre-Code Hollywood film. If you’d like to order Filthy Sugar, now is the best time to do so: my fabulous publisher Inanna Publications is having a summer reading sale! Order Filthy Sugar here and get 30% off when you enter the coupon code summer20 at checkout!

Filthy Sugar goes great with a flirty summer cocktail…or a bottle of bathtub gin! 😉

 

St. Louis Blues (1929), Baby Face (1933) and the Desire of a Woman

2020-06-17 (3)

(Featured photo: the great Bessie Smith)

At the turn of the 20th century a woman, deserted by the man she loves, walks alone on the streets of St. Louis:

“My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea…”

Musician and composer W.C. Handy, soon to be known as the Father of the Blues, hears her and, inspired by the poetry in her lonesome cry, writes a song: “Saint Louis Blues”. Originally published in 1914, “Saint Louis Blues” quickly became a smash hit; by the century’s end, Handy’s song had been covered by well over thirty noted musicians.

2020-06-17 (6)

(Above photo: W.C. Handy)

“Saint Louis Blues” is a staple of Pre-Code movies, which is where I first discovered it. It is employed as a plot device in the drama Rain (1932), in which Joan Crawford portrays a free spirited, hard loving prostitute who falls under the spell of a hypocrite bible thumping reformer. The song is also used prominently in Ladies They Talk About (1933), a sexy women’s prison film starring Barbara Stanwyck as a bank robber who falls in love with – you guessed it – the moral reformer who sent her to the slammer. Most famously recorded by the great Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong in 1925, “Saint Louis Blues” would become the theme song for the “bad good-girls” of Pre-Code film: misunderstood and abandoned women, whose sexual desire is at the root of their loneliness.

Continue reading “St. Louis Blues (1929), Baby Face (1933) and the Desire of a Woman”

Filthy Sugar: An Excerpt

51NQLxhb8PL

My debut novel Filthy Sugar is now available with Inanna Publications! I thought I’d share a short excerpt with you on this lovely Friday morning.

***

“Highballs and hard times! Diamonds and breadlines!”

Clad in his trademark checked suit and comedy derby, Brock belts out “Highballin’ Hard Times,” a song he wrote to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. A row of chorines dressed up as nineteenth-century saloon girls dance the can-can as I bathe centre stage in an elephantine cocktail glass filled with real champagne.

Humming along with Brock’s booze tune, I joyfully kick my legs out towards the Apple Bottom’s newly installed mirrored ceiling.

“My pockets are empty but my honey’s got money!”

I dunk my head under the golden liquid, not caring if my hair gets sticky.

“As long as I’m with her all my days will be sunny!”

I take a generous gulp of fizz water before coming up again for air. Happy and dizzy, I shake my tassels at the mirthful audience, who roar their approval. I wonder if Mr. Manchester is in the theatre tonight. Just the thought of him watching me like this, with my wet, near naked body glistening under the hot lights, excites me. I have only ever known one man “in the biblical sense”: Guy Bacon, a rather plump banker, eleven years my senior, whom I had met while taxi dancing. I had not found Guy particularly handsome or interesting, but he was very persistent; I was kind of bored. So, one evening, after he had spent all of his tickets on me, I agreed to go for a ride down to the lake in his cherry-red Chevrolet Sports Cabriolet. Continue reading “Filthy Sugar: An Excerpt”

Virtual Toronto Lit Up: Inanna’s Spring Releases

June 18 TO LIT UP launch banner_for posting

On Thursday, June 18th at 5pm, Toronto Lit Up and Inanna Publications will be hosting a virtual book launch to celebrate Inanna’s Spring 2020 releases! I am so excited to be launching with these fabulous authors! Here are the details:

Join us for a virtual celebratory evening of readings and revelry featuring authors Heather Babcock (Filthy Sugar), Nina Munteanu (A Diary in the Age of Water), Ruth Panofsky (Radiant Shards: Hoda’s North End Poems) and Mary Rykov (some conditions apply). Books discounted for the event, author Q & A and more!

Register here: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/toronto-lit-up-inanna-launch

 

Crashing the Party: “Our Modern Maidens (1929)” and the Inevitable Ticking of the Clock.

joan

Do you remember where you were on Wednesday, March 11th, 2020?

I do. I was having lunch with a friend at George’s Chicken at Bloor & Bathurst. I can’t remember what we talked about but I know it wasn’t Covid-19. The overhead TV was on and I remember a newscaster reporting that the NBA had suspended its season due to a player testing positive for the coronavirus but I didn’t think that would affect me. After lunch, my friend and I parted ways and I hopped on the subway to shop for some vintage inspired seamed stockings at Damsels and then I headed to Brentwood Library to pick up a book and a few DVDs that I had placed on hold. I had no idea that by Saturday these simple pleasures – lunch with a friend, clothes shopping and visiting the public library – would be impossible. That day now feels like something out of a dream.

I was thinking about this as I recently watched Our Modern Maidens (1929).  The movie is a follow up – though not a sequel – to MGM’s smash hit Our Dancing Daughters (1928), the flapper film that turned the budding young starlet Joan Crawford into a bona fide superstar. In addition to the top-billed Crawford, both movies also feature Anita Page and Edward Nugent, but make no mistake: the real stars of these “mad youth/high society/jazz baby” films are the elaborate sets, glittering gowns, fancy cars and flapper bling. This is Art Deco porn at its most indulgent. Champagne parties (“lunch is poured!”); fireworks viewed from a yacht; sex in a Rolls-Royce; plenty of orchids, feathers and furs and – oh yeah – Joan Crawford dancing half naked in a speakeasy: Our Modern Maidens puts the “roar” in the Roaring Twenties.  The film was released on September 8th, 1929: six and a half weeks before Black Thursday and the start of the Great Depression. Talk about a party crash!

Continue reading “Crashing the Party: “Our Modern Maidens (1929)” and the Inevitable Ticking of the Clock.”

Meet me at the Virtual Speakeasy: June 4th at 7:30pm!

speakeasy

Yep, this “brick & mortar” gal is having a virtual party to celebrate the release of my 1930’s themed debut novel Filthy Sugar!

The music was fast, the booze was cheap, the times were tough but the dames were tougher…

Join Toronto author Heather Babcock to celebrate her debut novel, Filthy Sugar, published by Inanna Publications (inanna.ca). 

Featuring an in-depth Q&A session with Heather, moderated by Liz Worth, and a special performance by Neil Traynor on the ukulele.

Make yourself a drink from the specially-themed recipe suggestions you will receive when you RSVP, and join us in raising a toast to Filthy Sugar.

When: Thursday, June 4, 2020; 7:30pm EST // RSVP below to get all the details you’ll need to attend!

RSVP here: https://mailchi.mp/248144d4ab21/speakeasy

51NQLxhb8PL

Thank you to my good friend Liz Worth for organizing this!

The Parade’s Gone By (A Poem)

gloria

The Parade’s Gone By

Miss Desmond, your boy was right:

The parade’s gone by,

I heard it’s moved online – 

A nice place to visit but 

I sure as hell don’t want to live

Where I can only touch

What I cannot feel. 

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” you cried,

But Norma, now that’s all we got:

Talking heads, ephemeral shadows

Locked behind a screen

And I can’t get a connection.

Yes Miss Desmond, the parade has indeed passed us by;

It’s been a week but I can still hear the stomping of the boots in my ears,

My hope waving good-bye to a tardy Santa Claus,

Collecting tinsel

I am forbidden to touch.

– Heather Babcock, March 2020

***

Note: This is not a political poem. I wrote this Sunday morning as a way to work through the anxiety and fear that I have been experiencing due to the Covid-19 shutdowns. I thought that Norma Desmond – the fictional silent film star from Sunset Boulevard (1950), a woman who is described by her younger lover as “waving to a parade that had long passed her by”- was a good symbol for the way that I am feeling right now. The difference is that Norma mourned the passing of silence while I miss the noise.

So very much. ❤

 

 

 

 

Depression-era movies were made for this time: Top Pre-Code Escapist Films

Busby1

We are all experiencing the loss right now of our regular day-to-day way of living. As with any loss, many of us are experiencing the stages of grief, which include shock, denial, bargaining and depression. I always thought of myself as an introvert but this crisis has shown me how important human interaction is: social distancing is necessary right now but it’s also very disheartening and, well, lonely.

During this time, I have found some comfort in movies made during Hollywood’s saucy Pre-Code period, which took place from 1930 to mid-1934, during the darkest days of the Great Depression.  Although there are many excellent social dramas from this era – films such as Heroes for Sale (1933) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) – which, with their focus on income equality and corrupt bureaucracy remain relevant today, Hollywood was also pumping out loads of escapist fare meant to lend a little hope and cheer: two things I think we all could use right now.

What follows is just a handful of my favorite Pre-Code escapist films.  Feel free to list your own favorites in the comment section. Continue reading “Depression-era movies were made for this time: Top Pre-Code Escapist Films”