The Great Dames of Scarface (1932): Ann Dvorak and Karen Morley

Ann Dvorak in a publicity photo for Scarface (1932). Newspapers called her “Hollywood’s New Cinderella”.

“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.

Continue reading “The Great Dames of Scarface (1932): Ann Dvorak and Karen Morley”

“Come on baby, what are you afraid of?”: The Bad Boy Gangster Was the Femme Fatale of 1930’s Pre-Code Cinema

Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931)

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.

Continue reading ““Come on baby, what are you afraid of?”: The Bad Boy Gangster Was the Femme Fatale of 1930’s Pre-Code Cinema”

“A Skid Row Pippi Longstocking”

One of my new favorite blogs is Six Sentences . Created and edited by Robert McEvily, Six Sentences showcases daily flash fiction. It’s a great creative blast to kick start my day! I am thrilled that my flash fiction piece Gaslight Gertie has been published on the site. Gaslight Gertie is set in the early 1920’s and was inspired by my great grandmother, who worked as a domestic servant. You can read it – as well as other fabulous short stories six sentences long – here.

Red Lipstick Made Me a Criminal (and a few other fun facts about your favorite cosmetic)

By Heather Babcock, 2021

Red lipstick made me do it.

The sleek, white plastic tube of flame-orange wax called out to me from the bowels of the Zellers’ cosmetic aisle.

The year was 1988 and I was ten years old. At home, a large poster of Madonna, in character for Who’s That Girl (1987), hung over my bed: clad in fishnets, a leather jacket and fingerless gloves. More intimidating than the revolver in her hands was the stark red lipstick on her face. Fierce. Fabulous. I didn’t understand why the other girls at my school didn’t like her. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to wear lipstick too.

Every Saturday, my mother would go grocery shopping at the Kipling Queensway Mall and my dad would give my sister and I a dollar each to buy either trash or a treat at the mall’s dollar store or Zellers. But this Saturday, I didn’t feel like a chocolate bar or a bag of chips. I didn’t need another whoopee cushion or copy of Tiger Beat magazine.

I wanted that lipstick.

It didn’t matter that it cost a little more than the dollar my dad had given me. To my ten-year-old mind, that was an unfairness that could be easily corrected. And so, taking advantage of my then-mousy invisibility, I quietly slipped the coveted tube into the pocket of my Levi’s. I don’t remember feeling nervous or even giddy about it and I certainly didn’t feel guilty – that red lipstick belonged to me. It was mine. I did however make the colossal mistake of boasting to my sister about the steal, in proud whispers, on the ride home.

Hey Daaaa-dddd,” she called out smugly. “Heather stole a lipstick!

And so, before I knew it, I was back in the Zellers department store, handing over my swag and stammering out an apology to the bored teenage clerk whose only response to my foray into crime was a glassy-eyed shrug.

Continue reading “Red Lipstick Made Me a Criminal (and a few other fun facts about your favorite cosmetic)”

The “Pre-Code Peep Show”: a Lesson in 1930’s Lingerie

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.

Continue reading “The “Pre-Code Peep Show”: a Lesson in 1930’s Lingerie”

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

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”

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.”

In Honour of International Women’s Day: Remembering Film Pioneer Nell Shipman

just nell

“Surely not many a silver screen star can write, produce and slice her own nitrate. I take pride in my skills but without a distribution deal, these talents remain ‘in the can’, as we say – invisible, worthless. Tomorrow the studio heads will wave their magic wands of approval – or not. I believe we have good prospects if I can dodge the (creditors) by the fire escape one more day. (…) There are so many stories yet to be told and sold in our future. Tomorrow. Thank God, there is tomorrow.” – Nell Shipman

One hundred years ago, before Wall Street moved in and before the domination of the large studio system, women ruled Hollywood: in front of and behind the scenes, they wrote the stories, shot the scenes, managed production budgets and dreamed up the publicity scenarios that turned everyday shop girls into superstars. One of the most fearless of these early film pioneers was Nell Shipman, a Canadian born director, actress (who performed all of her own stunts!), producer, screenwriter, novelist and animal rights activist and trainer. I recently discovered Nell during a midnight screening of Back to God’s Country (1919), an action-adventure blockbuster that she both wrote and starred in. I was equal parts surprised, delighted and enchanted by Nell’s earthy sensuality (her infamous skinny-dipping scene is more joyful than salacious) and the feminist tone of the film (her character – a woman surviving in the harsh Canadian wilderness – is no damsel in distress but rather a defiant dame).  The thoughtful portrayal and gentle handling of the many animals in the film is also refreshing; at a time when most other nature filmmakers were as likely to shoot animals as they were to film them, Nell Shipman emphatically advocated for the humane treatment of animals in movies and spoke out against animal cruelty.

Continue reading “In Honour of International Women’s Day: Remembering Film Pioneer Nell Shipman”