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”
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.
(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.
“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
(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.
(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.
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!
“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.
“Nobody watches silent movies anymore”.
I was a little taken aback when I read the above quote recently in an otherwise well-researched book about Pre-Code film. Nobody watches silent movies anymore? Tell that to the audiences who flocked to the Fox and the Revue Cinema this past weekend to watch two silent classics: It (1927) and The Hands of Orlac (1924). In spite of the unusually mild February weather, both films played to a packed house.
Being a huge fan of Clara Bow, I was excited to see her on the big screen in the film that immortalized her as the original “IT Girl”: on Saturday, the Toronto Silent Film Festival screened It (1927) at the Fox theatre in the Beaches, with live music accompaniment by Tania Gill. Prior to the film, my beau and I checked out the merchandise table where I picked up some sassy Clara Bow buttons for a toonie each and he found a cool Marilyn Monroe biography for only one dollar! Regrets? I have a few: there was a Gloria Swanson DVD collection for $20.00 which I unwisely passed up (I figured I should keep my cash for groceries but really, when choosing between bread and Gloria, one should always choose Gloria!). I couldn’t resist asking my beau to snap a photo of me under the Fox’s vintage Candy Bar sign (pictured).
(Pictured at top: Director, actress, screenwriter & comic genius Mabel Normand)
“Not only is a woman as well fitted to stage photo-drama as a man, but in many ways she has a distinct advantage over him because of her very nature.” – Alice Guy-Blaché
When you hear the words “movie director” what do you immediately picture? Someone in sunglasses and a flat-cap barking out orders into a megaphone? Whatever you envision, it’s probably a man and he’s probably white. Yet many of the pioneers of film-making – the very people who carved the way for the movies that we watch today – were women and people of color. In fact the first narrative film, La Fée aux Choux (1896) – also known in English as The Cabbage Fairy – was directed by a French woman named Alice Guy-Blaché. Comb through film history books however, and you’ll find chapter upon chapter devoted to Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith but you’ll be lucky to find a sentence, let alone a paragraph, about Guy-Blaché or Mabel Normand, the woman who taught Chaplin how to direct film comedy, or Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, whose anti-lynching drama Within Our Gates (1920) remains as vital and important today as it was upon its release. It’s doubtful you’ll find a chapter in those history books devoted to Marion E. Wong, who established the Mandarin Film Company in 1916 in Oakland, California and who wrote and directed The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1916/1917), the first American feature length film with an all Asian-American cast. Nell Shipman, the Canadian screenwriter/director and actress who performed all of her own stunts, is also MIA from the pages of most film history books.
Racism, misogyny, economics, the advent of sound and the domination of the big studio system all played a role in erasing the work of many of these pioneers, who may have lacked the finances needed to preserve their films and who – unlike Chaplin and Griffith – did not have access to, or the help of, the mainstream media to promote their legacies.
In the year 2000, I decided to start taking my writing more seriously. Perhaps, I allowed myself to think, I could even turn this into a career. It’s been a long strange trip, filled with plenty of rejections and self-doubt but peppered with just enough encouragement and publications to keep me going. I am so proud and pleased to announce that my debut novel Filthy Sugar will be released with Inanna Publications in May 2020.
Set in the mid-1930s, Filthy Sugar tells the story of Wanda Whittle, a nineteen-year-old dreamer who models fur coats in an uptown department store, but who lives in a crowded rooming house with her hard-working widowed mother and shrewd older sister, Evelyn, in the “slums” behind the city’s marketplace; a world where “death is always close but life is stubborn.” Bored with the daily grind and still in shock from the sudden death of her father, Wanda finds both escapism and inspiration in the celluloid fantasies of the Busby Berkeley musicals, Greta Garbo dramas, and Jean Harlow sex comedies. Strutting up and down the aisles of Blondell’s department store, her peep-toe high heels drumming out a steady beat on the waxed linoleum floors, Wanda fantasizes that she’s Ruby Keeler, the tap dancing sweetheart from 42nd Street. But Wanda wants more than to wear a glamorous woman’s coat–she wants to live inside of her flesh.
Her dreams come true after a chance encounter with the mysterious Mr. Manchester, proprietor of the Apple Bottom burlesque theatre. Suddenly Wanda is thrust into a world of glitter and grit. Descending from the rickety, splintered roof top of the Apple Bottom theatre on a red velvet swing, Wanda Whittle morphs into a dream named Wanda Wiggles; sweeter than a strawberry sundae and tastier than a deep dish apple pie. At the Apple Bottom she meets Lili Belle, a naughty cartoon flapper brought to life; Queenie, a sultry headliner whom Wanda feels drawn to like a bee to a butterfly bush; the sweet and salty Eddie, a drummer who thumps out his words like bullets from a machine gun and Brock Baxter, the Apple Bottom’s vaudevillian comic whose apple cheeked, pretty boy exterior belies his sinister intentions.
All will have an impact on Wanda’s journey. Cowardly boxers, shady coppers, dime store hoodlums, and painted ladies–Wanda will encounter them all! On her voyage from rags to riches and back again, Wanda experiences a sexual awakening and achieves personal independence as she discovers that a girl doesn’t need a lot of sugar to be sensational!
Filthy Sugar, a novel by Heather Babcock coming in May 2020 with Inanna Publications!
By Heather Babcock
“Pain. Agony. Continual torture. Day after day, like a million ants eating me alive. Do you know what that means? No, you don’t. Because when I was being blown to bits, you were sitting here safe and comfortable. And you’re still sitting here in judgement.” – Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess), Heroes for Sale (1933)
Remembrance Day is not about “glorifying war”. November 11th is not about the men, safe in their power, who created the wars. Rather, Remembrance Day is about the men and women who left their homes and their families to sacrifice – sometimes their lives – for us: for the freedoms we can choose to take for granted today. November 11th is about the Veterans who are not here to tell their stories. It is about the Veterans who thankfully are still here to tell their stories. And it is about those who cannot or could not tell their stories because they are/were too painful to verbalize.
Sound motion pictures (“talkies”) were introduced to the public about nine years after the end of World War One. Many of the top directors of early sound films – such as Busby Berkeley, James Whale and William A. Wellman – were WW1 veterans. War films made during this period, while in no means shying away from the death and destruction of the battlefield, are not gory as the war films that would be made in later decades. War films released during Hollywood’s Pre-Code period focus more on the mental, emotional and financial struggles that the WW1 veterans faced after coming home. Perhaps the directors – who may have experienced PTSD themselves – did not want to exploit the real-life horrors and violence they had faced for an audience’s entertainment. While modern war films focus on battlefield action, Pre-Code war movies focus on humanity and loss.
In the 1933 film Heroes for Sale, Richard Bartelmess plays Tom Holmes, a WW1 soldier whose heroic act on the battlefield is rewarded not with a medal but with a morphine addiction. He gets a job at a bank and attempts to hide his addiction but his drug dealer keeps pushing up the price. Desperate, Tom goes to see his doctor. The doctor refuses to prescribe the drug and instead calls Tom’s boss at the bank, who promptly fires him. “You fellows forget the war is over,” the smug banker chastises Tom. “Time to quit beating the drum and waving the flag.” This scene is interesting for a couple of reasons: as is often the case in Warner Brothers’ Pre-Code films, the banker is presented as sinister and downright evil, which makes a lot of sense in a film that was released about three and a half years after the stock market crash, but even more importantly this scene gives flesh to the feelings of ingratitude and dismissiveness that some WW1 vets were feeling upon returning home. In the groundbreaking 1932 movie I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, WW1 vet James Allen (the wonderful Paul Muni) exclaims in frustration: “No one seems to realize that I’ve changed – that I’m different now! I’ve been through hell! Folks here are concerned with my uniform and how I dance. I’m out of step with everybody.”
In his 1931 book Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s, author Frederick Lewis Allen describes a 1919 Life magazine cartoon in which a personification of Uncle Sam says to a WW1 vet “Nothing is too good for you, my boy! What would you like?” to which the soldier replies “A job.” About fourteen years later, Joan Blondell and Etta Moten Barnett performed the boot stomping finale “Remember My Forgotten Man” in the movie Gold Diggers of 1933. Blondell speaks the song’s opening lyrics:
“Remember my forgotten man? You put a rifle in his hand. You sent him far away, you shouted ‘hip, hooray!’ But look at him today.” (Lyrics by Warren and Dubin)
The elaborate number, choreographed by WW1 vet Busby Berkeley, begins with the forgotten women: the war widows, grieving mothers and the girls whose dreams of home and marriage were ripped away in what is now considered one of the bloodiest and deadliest wars in history with an estimated 37 million lives lost. “Forgetting him means you’re forgetting me,” Blondell sighs, as she wanders the streets looking for a trick. The number then shifts from the women to the men. We see proud men marching off to war in crisp uniforms. Girls throw flowers and toss kisses at them. Blankets of ticker tape and confetti seem to fall from the sky. But new soldiers come to join the parade: these men are bloody and bandaged; some carry dead, broken bodies on their backs. No one cheers these men on for the crowd has long disappeared. Next, the battlefield transforms into a breadline and young men shiver in the cold as they wait in line for a stale sandwich and a cup of watered down coffee. “We are the real forgotten men,” the soldiers sing. “Who have to lead this life again. We sauntered forth to fight, for glory was our pride but somehow glory died.”
Busby based the number on the Bonus Army of 1932. During one of the bleakest years of the Great Depression, an estimated 15,000 WW1 veterans, out of work and hungry, made their way to the nation’s capital to demand payment of their bonus for serving in the war. They called themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” and set up camp and ramshackle tents throughout Washington, D.C. Their pleas fell on deaf ears though when on June 17 the Senate voted against the House-passed bill that would have given WW1 vets immediate payment of their bonus. With no money and no place to go, the soldiers remained in their man-made camps. On July 28th, 1932 President Hoover ordered the Army to forcibly remove the veterans, along with their wives and children, using a violent force of tanks and cavalry with fixed bayonets and tear gas. Afterwards, the government set the veteran’s make-shift homes on fire.
Public sentiment was largely on the side of the WW1 soldiers: it didn’t matter which political party one followed, nobody – Republican, Democrat or independent – thought it was okay for the government to be gassing American war vets on the White House lawn.
Incidentally, Gold Diggers of 1933 was shot during the same time as Heroes for Sale. Both films are examples of the grit and perseverance of the people who lived through the Great Depression: “It takes more than one sock in the jaw to lick 120 million people,” Tom says at the end of Heroes for Sale, as he shivers in the rain in a Hooverville (an early 1930s term for a homeless camp). People in the 1930s may have been beaten down but they were looking up.
Canadian artist F.H. Varley’s 1918 painting “For What?” depicts a scene from WW1. Although a barrel of folded up corpses is in the painting’s foreground, this is not what immediately captures the eye. Instead we first notice the men in the background: one planting white crosses as another digs graves. Heavy clouds roll above them. This haunting painting is the strongest representation of PTSD (at the time referred to as “shell shock”) that I have ever seen.
On November 11th, we will remember the ones who died and the ones who were left behind to “lead this life again”; the decorated and the forgotten.
We will honor them as these films honored them: by remembering the horrors that they tried so hard to forget.
By Heather Babcock
As I watch and explore silent pictures, a common theme emerges: Death. This is not surprising as many of these films were created in the years following WW1. An estimated 37 million lives were lost during what is considered one of the deadliest and bloodiest wars in history. Young men (some still teenagers) from rural areas and working class backgrounds saw enlistment as their one chance to travel and experience adventure – to “see the world” – sadly, many saw their dreams of exploration mutate into real life nightmares of unspeakable horror.
Death and destruction lurk within the shadows of movies made during this period. Feelings of loneliness, disappointment and alienation fuse with fear. What follows is a handful of silent horror films which offer a very different kind of escapism: watching these movies, you may feel as though the world has been upended – leaving you alone to drown in their vast, sempiternal skies. Continue reading “Creepy Silent Movies You Need to See This Halloween”