I recently wrote a blog post for my fabulous publisher Inanna Publications, on why I feel that Jean Harlow is an important feminist icon. Check it out here
Happy Friday! I thought I’d share with you a very short excerpt from my debut novel Filthy Sugar on this lovely day! Enjoy!
“Unzip me, will you?” I ask, flipping my hair over to one side.
Lili Belle’s fingers fumble with my zipper. “I–I can’t, Wanda.” She turns away from me, her face burning. “You better do it yourself.”
“Why?” I let my dress fall to the floor. “What’s wrong, Lili Belle?”
She glances over at me shyly as I stand naked before her. I recognize the longing behind her glance and yet it is markedly different than the lust of Eddie, Mr. Manchester, or even Brock. Hers is a desire without entitlement. I take both of her hands and lead her to the bed.
“Come sit with me, Lili Belle.”
She keeps her head bent; her thick-mascaraed eyelashes casting shadows along her cheekbones, like the wings of a broken butterfly. She reminds me of a stray kitten. I can sense that she wants me to pet her, but if I do, she’ll run away.
“I should go, Wanda.”
“Do you want to go?” I press my open mouth to the spot where her shoulder meets the base of her neck, inhaling her apricot scent. “Is that what you want?”
The neighbour next door cranks up the phonograph. Piano teeth and trombone lungs, marshmallow clouds and upside down skies: suddenly Lili Belle is kissing me or I’m kissing her. Oh! What difference does it make? Her mouth is a chocolate cherry cream: messy and sweet, scrumptious and sticky. Kissing Lili Belle is devouring an ice cream cone in July; it is a hotdog at the ballpark; it is Jean Harlow slipping into something more comfortable, and it is better than all of those things.
Kissing Lili Belle is better than the movies.
Want to read more? The best place to get a hold of some Filthy Sugar is with Inanna Publications or ask for it at your local bookstore!
Note: Inanna Publications is currently having a summer sale! Use the coupon code summer20 at checkout and get 30% off!
Every Wednesday evening as a child, my mother would force me into an ugly, itchy brown polyester dress and thick woolen stockings and take me – no doubt kicking and screaming – to the local community center for my weekly Brownies meeting. (For those not in the know, Brownies are a version of Girl Guides for younger kids). I’d spend about an hour or so with a bunch of seven year old frenemies, sitting around a musty smelling stuffed owl (no, this is not an unflattering description of our group’s leader; it actually was a stuffed bird) while sewing badges on our fugly uniforms and reciting the group’s “motto, promise and law” as we raised and held our right index and middle fingers together tightly. I have no idea why we made this hand gesture – my only guess is that it was meant to symbolize what we were expected to do with our legs come puberty. (“Keep ‘em together, ladies!”)
Our most important promise was to “always think of others before” ourselves. I remember being puzzled by this – why were other people’s needs so much more important than mine? Didn’t I matter too? Nonetheless, I took the promise to heart – as a girl, I learned, this made life easier. As a woman, I learned, this only made life easier for everyone else.
No wonder as a teenager I always gravitated toward “the feisty ones”: the girls in the tight clothes; the ones who wore too much make-up; the girls who gave out plenty of cut-eye but never minced words.
Girls like Jean Harlow.
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
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! 😉
(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.
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”
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!
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
Thank you to my good friend Liz Worth for organizing this!