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.)
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.
Editor’s Note: Jeff Cottrill is a talented writer and spoken word artist. We met over a decade ago, as youngsters making our way in Toronto’s open mic scene. A fellow film buff, Jeff is one of my favorite people to talk movies with. So when he approached me about writing a guest post for the Soda Fountain, I knew it would be a great fit. Jeff’s debut novel Hate Story is being released from Dragonfly Publishing (Australia) in March 2022 and I was honored to read an ARC. Hate Story is a fresh, funny and original telling of the dark side of social media and internet shaming. Its heroine happens to be a movie blogger so the novel is sprinkled with lots of great references to classic and contemporary films. Read on for Jeff’s essay “Frank Capra: A Master of Comedy and Social Awareness”.
I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness. And a little lookin’ out for the other fella too.
James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
When many people hear the name Frank Capra today, chances are the only title they think of is It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). This movie is a timeless holiday favourite, but it’s a shame its reputation now outshines the rest of Capra’s filmmaking career – especially his pre-World War II movies, which are arguably better. Capra had a streak unmatched by any other director in the 1930s, winning three Academy Awards while helming classics like Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
Frank Capra is my favourite director from this era – or maybe tied with Charlie Chaplin. There are two important traits Capra and Chaplin have in common: their impeccable comedic timing, and their passionate social conscience. Many critics have dismissed Capra as a corny sentimentalist, but it’s really the comedy that brings his work to life, propped up by the wit of screenwriter Robert Riskin and the sharp delivery of actors like Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Thomas Mitchell, Lionel Barrymore and many others.
Take the whip-smart repartee that Gable and Colbert lob at each other in It Happened One Night. As Gable’s cynical reporter buses and hitchhikes across America with Colbert’s spoiled runaway heiress, the pair bicker and debate hilariously about everything from dunking donuts to piggybacking, with a speed and timing that surely influenced later romcoms. On the surface, the characters have nothing in common – but the energy they devote to each other reveals a deep connection, one of shared intelligent sarcasm, and you can’t help rooting for them to hook up.
Arthur and Stewart play off each other in a similar way in You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith, and Arthur had a knack for portraying jaded professional women with a hidden compassionate side. In both Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, Arthur’s character starts off mocking and patronizing the naive title hero – but once she gets to know him, she not only falls in love with his sincerity, but also becomes his number-one supporter. It sounds like an implausible fantasy, yet Arthur makes it work by staying smart, funny, fast-talking and worldly even while yielding to her inner sentiment. She’s no pushover; she thinks for herself and owns full agency over her decisions, in a way that may surprise modern viewers who expect dated sexism.
All Capra’s best movies centre on the theme of an ordinary man (the “Little Guy”) winning out against the big guns of the establishment. This theme was especially potent during the poverty and social upheaval of the Great Depression, but I think it’s even more relevant now – in the wake of the recent Occupy movement, and in an era of high wealth gaps and billionaires playing space tourism. Every Capra classic features a relatable lone hero who stands up for bedrock moral values against the corruption, egotism and greed around him – the kind of hero people wished for in the ’30s, and the kind we could use now.
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.
Honest Ed’s was one of the most inclusive places in the city of Toronto. It wasn’t just a bargain basement; with its fading posters and head-shots of long forgotten stars scotch taped to its poorly painted walls, Honest Ed’s was a free museum of Toronto’s theatrical history. Toronto tends to take itself a little too seriously sometimes and Honest Ed’s was a reminder that it’s okay to be a little silly and to have some fun.
The delightfully tacky and iconic landmark permanently turned off its lights on December 31st, 2016. A couple of years prior, the very talented photographer Nigel Hamid of Toronto Verve took some photos of me, outside and inside of Honest Ed’s. I feel very lucky to have these photographic memories of a fun and never-to-be-forgotten historic wonder.
Straight out of Poverty Row, what Detour (1945) lacks in budget, it makes up for in style. Written by Martin Goldsmith (The Twilight Zone) and starring Tom Neal and the inimitable Ann Savage, Detour is to film noir what The Public Enemy (1931) is to the gangster flick: it isn’t the first in its genre but it’s certainly one of the most definitive and influential. In A Pictorial History of Crime Films (1975), author Ian Cameron calls Detour “well in the running to being the cheapest really good talkie to come out of Hollywood.”
There’s no Public Enemy-style grapefruit in Detour but if there was, it would undoubtedly be Ann Savage smashing the breakfast fruit into Tom Neal’s face and not the other way around. As Vera, the unhinged hitchhiker whom our wide-eyed protagonist Al Roberts (Neal) has the misfortune of picking up, Savage is the most dangerous of all film noir dames: the femme who puts the “fatal” in femme fatale.
The odd one out in a sea of perfect cheekbones and symmetrical faces, Bette Davis was the closest thing to an “every-woman” that classic Hollywood ever got. Dismissed early on in her career by studio heads who didn’t find her “sexy” enough, the feisty trailblazing Davis went on to become one of the most popular, iconic and enduring figures of film and pop culture.
In some ways, Davis was the female Lon Chaney, “The Man of a Thousand Faces”. In films like Of Human Bondage (1934), Mr. Skeffington (1944) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), she portrayed unlikable characters with a relish that bordered on sadomasochism and insisted on using “ugly” make-up to look more hideous than her directors thought necessary. In her breakout role as Mildred Rogers, the vile wretch who cruelly toys with poor, sensitive Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) in Of Human Bondage (1934), Bette, in her own words, “made it pretty clear that Mildred was not going to die of a dread disease looking as if a deb had missed her noon nap.” During the filming of Mr. Skeffington (1944), when her director Vincent Sherman balked at the over-the-top make-up she insisted on wearing to play Fanny Skeffington, a deteriorating socialite who has lost her looks to diphtheria, Bette shrugged. “My audience likes to see me do this kind of thing,” she replied.
Those large, infamous eyes were like that of a doe but onscreen Bette Davis often possessed the look of a startled rattlesnake. Like a razor blade hidden inside a tube of pink lipstick, her kiss – and words – had plenty of bite. In films such as The Letter (1940) and All About Eve (1950), Davis delivered cutting and suggestive lines with her own signature blend of caustic sensuality. Here is a look at some of Bette’s most unforgettable on-screen quotes (with a fabulous off-screen one thrown in for good measure):