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
“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).
“Jennie Hagen, whose dreams were all of triumphs as an actress, and whose life was all long hours and poor pay in a cheap restaurant.” (Title card from Stage Struck)
In the silent romantic comedy Stage Struck (1925), Gloria Swanson plays waitress Jennie Hagen, a sweet but kinda goofy young woman who lives in black & white but dreams in color – two-strip Technicolor to be exact. She’s hopelessly in love with Orme Wilson (Lawrence Gray) the pancake chef in the sleazy diner wherein she toils. Orme, who is as dimwitted as he is cocky, is obsessed with stage actresses so Jennie is determined to do whatever it takes to become a stage star herself in order to win his heart. A fateful encounter with the producer of a showboat promises Jennie a chance at the stardom she’s dreamed of – but maybe Orme doesn’t really think actresses are so swell after all.
Stage Struck (1925) is a black & white movie but its prologue and epilogue were filmed in two-strip Technicolor. If you’ve never seen two-strip Technicolor, thank your lucky eyes. This is NOT the glorious Technicolor rainbow seen in later films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939). Two-strip Technicolor was all sickly pinks and greens; it is literally an eyesore. Jean Harlow (Hell’s Angels, 1930) was one of the few stars who actually made early Technicolor look good. Likewise, Gloria Swanson’s beauty also escapes the format unscathed. The opening sequence showcasing Jennie’s dreams of fame and stardom are a sumptuous showcase of diamonds, gowns and glamour (thanks to Swiss born costume designer René Hubert, a favorite of noted fashionista Swanson). Whatever the film format, Gloria Swanson was always ready for her close-up.
I’d only ever seen Gloria Swanson in dramatic roles in films such as Sadie Thompson (1928), Queen Kelly (1932) and, of course, Sunset Boulevard (1950) so I was surprised at how funny she is here: Swanson, whose plain gingham waitress uniform and apron only seem to emphasize her sophisticated beauty, literally juggles dirty dishes, hilariously flips pancakes – the flapjacks landing on her head (and down the front of an unsuspecting customer’s dress) instead of the plate – and frequently falls on her ass, all with the fearless dexterity of Lucille Ball. Indeed, the glamorous Swanson got her start in slapstick – most notably at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. Photoplay, in their 1925 review of Stage Struck, wrote that the film “makes Gloria Charlie Chaplin’s nearest rival. If Charlie is a genius, this picture makes Gloria a genius too.”
Like many films of its period, Stage Struck was clearly aimed at the “little shop girls”: young working class women who, after WW1, had left the domestic service sector behind, with its low wages, long hours and social isolation, in favor of jobs in the burgeoning urban department stores (shorter hours and more fun). Like Jennie, the movies were giving 20th century working class girls and women dreams and hopes – a promise of a way out.
It’s unfair to Gloria, but while watching Stage Struck, I couldn’t help but think of Clara Bow. Indeed, Stage Struck has many similarities with It, the movie that immortalized the red-haired, Brooklyn born Bow as the original “It Girl”: both films are from Paramount Pictures (and produced by Famous Players-Lasky corporation); both feature lovelorn, working class flappers; in Stage Struck, Jennie has a stuffed toy dog named Flea, in It, Bow’s Betty-Lou also still plays with stuffed toys; in It, Betty-Lou cuts up her work dress into a fashionable gown for a night out at the Ritz, in Stage Struck, Jennie (less successfully) takes the scissors to her kid boots and wide brimmed hat in an attempt to look like the modern showgirl of Orme’s dreams. But It was released in January of 1927, over a year after Stage Struck’s November 1925 release. So can we say that Gloria Swanson started “It” but Clara Bow perfected “It”?
Stage Struck (1925) is a fun, frothy little movie and if you’ve never watched a silent film before, this would be an enjoyable introduction.
Note: Kino Lorber released Stage Struck (1925) on DVD in 2018, stunningly mastered from 35mm film elements preserved by the George Eastman museum and featuring a great musical score composed and performed by Andrew Simpson.
Review written by Heather Babcock (2019)
By Heather Babcock
“I’m a curiosity in Hollywood. I’m a big freak because I’m myself.” – Clara Bow
“The girl…blossomed in a mud puddle,” wrote Stephen Crane of his eponymous heroine in his 1892 novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.
Crane’s sentiment could just as easily apply to Clara Bow, born thirteen years later, on July 29th, 1905.
If the term “It Girl” makes you think of spoiled blonde socialites clutching yappy little Chihuahuas while spilling out of stretch limousines, you may be surprised to learn that the original “It Girl” was born 114 years ago in a Brooklyn tenement, in a neighborhood populated by prostitutes, dope peddlers and assorted criminals of both the soft and hard core variety. In fact, Clara Bow was not expected to live at all. Her mother went into labor during a brutal heatwave which shot the infant mortality rate in the tenement district up to around eighty percent. Clara was the third child of Robert and Sarah Bow; their first daughter had died three days after her birth while their second child lived for only two hours. When Clara Bow was born, her impoverished young parents were so certain that she would not survive that they didn’t even bother obtaining a birth certificate.
But not only did Clara survive; she thrived. Continue reading “Happy Birthday, Clara Bow!”
“It is gratifying to know that newspapers throughout the province stand solidly behind a rigid enforcement of the censorship and the absolute prohibition of all that savors indecency.” – Quote taken from an article titled “Cleansing the Movies”, published August 1st, 1927 in the Globe.
The world changed after WW1. New technologies and gadgets abounded, some which helped save time and some that helped pass the time, such as gramophones, telephones, vacuum cleaners, radio and the movies. Music was faster, booze was cheaper and skirts were shorter. Political parties and newspaper pundits wrung their hands in anxious frustration at a world which was seemingly spinning out of their control.
Newspaper archives from this period offer an interesting history of these pivotal times, as well as unintentionally shining a spotlight on the prejudices that fueled the self-righteous fervor of the censors and moral reformers so often quoted in the major papers of the day.
Racism was behind the anti-jazz music campaign of the 1920s. The following are typical newspaper headlines from this time:
“Modern Day Dance Music is ESSENCE OF VULGARITY” – The Globe, September 20th, 1927
“Mothers Should Aid in Combating Jazz” – The Globe, March 21st, 1929
“Wife Played Jazz While Husband Was Dying!” – The Globe, March 9th, 1923
One Globe article from September 28th, 1926 was simply titled: “The Evils of Jazz!”
Misogynists directed their venom at the knee baring, high kicking young flappers often eulogized by F. Scott Fitzgerald and immortalized by the likes of Clara Bow and Joan Crawford. In a March 31st, 1932 article titled “Flapper Idols of Movies Have Bad Effect on Girls”, Chancellor Wallace of Victoria College issued the following warning to parents: “Do not let the emotional lives of your daughters be over-stimulated by the books they read and the shows they see…Which is your daughter – an angel or a flapper?”
Some moralists however had a kitchen sink attitude to their crusades, such as the funster featured in this April 30th, 1925 Globe headline: “She Fears Smoking Will Ruin Humanity: Mrs. M.E. Frey, Evangelist, Decries Present Craze for Pleasure, Jazz, Drink and Poker.”
There was one “pleasure” though which really had the Mrs. M.E. Freys of the world reaching for their smelling salts and that was the movies.
The 1897 boxing documentary “The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight” (also known as “The Great Corbett Fight”) is widely considered to be the world’s first feature film or at least its first blockbuster. Film historian Terry Ramsaye wrote that “until that picture appeared, the social status of the screen had been uncertain. It now became definitely low-brow, an entertainment of the great unwashed commonalty. This likewise made it a mark for up lifters, moralists, reformers and legislators in a degree which would never have been obtained if the screen had reached a higher social strata.” (Source: “Hollywood: The Pioneers”, Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal, 1979).
Just as they had tried to “save” the working man from booze with Prohibition, the upper class moral reformers of the day made it their mission to “clean up” the movies all in the name of “protecting” the lower classes, whom they feared would be led down a rabbit hole of salacious sin and depravity by way of Jean Harlow’s nipples and James Cagney’s knuckles.
“Women Smoking, Modern Dancing Scorned by Pastor: Rev. Dr. Riley Blames Movies for Tidal Wave of Banditry” screamed an April 12th, 1929 Globe headline. “Sex Saturnalia of the Screen Must be Stopped” warned the Globe on March 19th, 1921 (I’d like to thank this headline for introducing me to the word “Saturnalia” which means “an occasion of wild revelry”, as in “I’m ready for my sex Saturnalia, Mr. DeMille”).
Movies were being blamed for a supposed increase in crime: “Young Locksmith Lured to Vagrancy by Movies!” reads a headline from December 28th, 1920. A Globe article dated July 30th, 1934 tells the tale of a 12 year old girl “with blonde bobbed hair” who was charged with stealing purses and jewelry from homes in the Beach district. “Child is Moving-Picture ‘Fan’” clucks the subhead.
The flickers were also held accountable for men not casting their ballots: “Young Men Today Shunning Politics, Declares Liberal: Ward 5 Officer Blames Autos and Movies for Secession.” (The Globe, March 19, 1930).
A Globe article dated August 1st, 1927 titled “Cleansing the Movies” quotes the Stratford Beacon Herald as asserting that “People…go to the movies to be entertained, not for the stimulation of passion…If the provincial and state authorities will put their feet down good and hard on the ‘sex appeal’ stuff**, the film magnates will soon elevate the movies to the standard they ought to be.”
(**Mae West herself couldn’t have written a saucier double entendre! ;-))
I’ll end with this Letter to the Editor published on June 27th, 1927 in the Globe:
“I cannot believe that the average parent realizes the effect of these vulgar pictures on the girls and boys. The intelligent adult does not frequent the motion-picture house, only children and morons can stand the steady diet of frivolity, vulgarity and vice which the producers are serving up for us.”
When it comes to my movies, I’ll have a cup of vulgarity with a side of vice, please. 🙂
Note: I don’t mean to pick on the Globe here. I researched this post by checking out the expansive Globe newspaper archives available on the Toronto Public Library website. I am sure that most newspapers of the day carried similar headlines. My sincere thanks to both the Globe and the Toronto Public Library for the invaluable public access.
Photo Credit: Photo of me taken by Neil Traynor at the historic Fox movie theater (established in 1914) during the 2019 Toronto Silent Film Festival.
By Heather Babcock, 2019
“All the time the flapper is laughing and dancing, there’s a feeling of tragedy underneath.” – Clara Bow
In the 1910s, film actresses were usually pythoness-like vamps (think Theda Bara) or sunny, Peter-Pan-like eternal children (such as Mary Pickford, who was still playing child roles well into her early 30s). Audiences of the roaring 1920s – giddy with bathtub gin and inspired by a burgeoning sexual revolution – were hungry for a new kind of movie star – someone wholesome but sexy, fun yet sweet – in other words, the dream-girl next door and there she was: Clara Bow.
A lonely child who was insecure about a slight speech impediment, Clara found comfort in the movies, a new medium which was quickly transforming the world and shaping the American Dream. After being forced to drop out of school to support her family by working a number of odd jobs, Clara entered the 1921 Brewster Publications’ Fame and Fortune Contest, publicized in her favorite magazine Motion Picture Classic. She won the contest but Clara still had a rough road ahead of her: “I wore myself out going from studio to studio, from agency to agency, applying for every possible part. But there was always something. I was too young, too little, or too fat. Usually I was too fat,” she would say years later. In 1925 she became a household name, playing a flapper “jazz baby” in The Plastic Age. “She has eyes that would drag any youngster away from his books,” the New York Times swooned at the time. Her role as a plucky shop girl in the movie It (1927) catapulted her to both stardom and immortality as the original “It Girl”.
One of Hollywood’s most prevalent falsehoods is the notion that Clara Bow was a casualty of the “talkies” (sound films) or, to use an oft-repeated term from the period, that she had “voice trouble”. This, like the equally ridiculous myth that the 1960s rock group the Monkees “couldn’t play their own instruments”, is a blatant lie that, although easily refuted, nevertheless persists due to well-worn telling and re-telling of the fib, usually by sources who should – and often do – know better. Numerous magazines and “serious” film history text books published after 1950 propagate this untruth about Bow and yet one need only to read contemporary reviews of her sound films – or to simply watch one of her talkies – and the “voice trouble” tall-tale evaporates quicker than an uncapped bottle of dime-store perfume.
“CLARA BOW TALKS!” read the headline of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s review of her first talkie The Wild Party. The review went on to say that Clara’s voice “records fairly well, she speaks her lines realistically enough, and while the dialogue is pretty terrible, that certainly is not her fault.(…)You’ll probably want to ‘see and hear’ Clara Bow.” (Source: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 1, 1929 issue).
Bow’s “talkies” were, if not critical successes, than at least financial ones: audiences still packed the theaters in such a capacity that police officers were often needed to control the “It Girl” hungry masses. Her sultry Brooklyn accent was perfect for the snappy, streetwise dialogue of the new medium. When she sang in the 1930 film Paramount on Parade, audiences cheered with delight.
The truth is that audiences never left Clara – Clara, unhappy with the new, still primitive, sound technology which limited her movement as an actress and terrified of the microphone, left Hollywood on her own terms to become a full-time mother and homemaker. “I don’t wanna be remembered as somebody who couldn’t do nothin’ but take her clothes off,” she said after her final film Hoopla (1933). “I want somethin’ real now.”
But Clara was always “somethin’ real”. And still is. In the WW1 action drama Wings (1927), Bow surprises Charles “Buddy” Rogers by popping up between the legs of a pair of old-fashioned Victorian style bloomers hanging on a clothesline. This scene exemplifies the spirit of Clara Bow: a fresh breeze of modernity breaking through the stuffy constraints of the past. In 2018, The Toronto Silent Film Festival screened Wings (1927) at the Fox Theatre on a Saturday afternoon. The theater was packed with patrons of all ages (including children).
Over 91 years later, Clara still has “It”.
I was able to find contemporary reviews of Clara Bow’s talkies by searching the online newspaper archives available on the Brooklyn Public Library website.
I also researched this article by reading David Stenn’s excellent 1988 book Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild. It is the definitive biography of the It Girl and one of the best Hollywood biographies I have ever read – period.