Crashing the Party: “Our Modern Maidens (1929)” and the Inevitable Ticking of the Clock.

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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.”

Depression-era movies were made for this time: Top Pre-Code Escapist Films

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We are all experiencing the loss right now of our regular day-to-day way of living. As with any loss, many of us are experiencing the stages of grief, which include shock, denial, bargaining and depression. I always thought of myself as an introvert but this crisis has shown me how important human interaction is: social distancing is necessary right now but it’s also very disheartening and, well, lonely.

During this time, I have found some comfort in movies made during Hollywood’s saucy Pre-Code period, which took place from 1930 to mid-1934, during the darkest days of the Great Depression.  Although there are many excellent social dramas from this era – films such as Heroes for Sale (1933) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) – which, with their focus on income equality and corrupt bureaucracy remain relevant today, Hollywood was also pumping out loads of escapist fare meant to lend a little hope and cheer: two things I think we all could use right now.

What follows is just a handful of my favorite Pre-Code escapist films.  Feel free to list your own favorites in the comment section. Continue reading “Depression-era movies were made for this time: Top Pre-Code Escapist Films”

Silents Please!: Silent Movies are Alive and Well in Toronto

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“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).

Continue reading “Silents Please!: Silent Movies are Alive and Well in Toronto”

“Goodness Had Nothin’ to Do With It, Dearie”: Favorite Mae West Quotes

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In 1933, Hollywood’s leading sex symbol was a feisty 40-year-old woman who was as smart as she was curvaceous. Mae West was more than just another sexy blonde though; one of the most influential people, of not only the 1930s but of the twentieth century, West was an accomplished playwright, screenwriter, actress, singer and comedienne. A pioneer of the sexual revolution, Mae said “I let people know that women like sex too, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” In 1927, Mae’s smash hit play Sex was raided by police and after the subsequent trial, she was found guilty of “corrupting the morals of youth”. The judge sentenced her to either pay a fine of five hundred dollars or spend ten days in a women’s prison. Mae chose the jail sentence because she thought it “more interesting” and figured it would provide fodder for her writing: “I wasn’t going to be deprived of that experience,” she would say years later. “I saw those as ten very valuable days, a kind of working vacation.” In 1933, West’s movie She Done Him Wrong (1933) did Paramount Studios very, very right: the film – and Mae – saved the studio from bankruptcy during the bleakest days of the Great Depression. In the excellent 2009 biography She Always Knew How: Mae West, A Personal Biography, author Charlotte Chandler wrote: “There were even some people who were willing to miss a second meal in order to see She Done Him Wrong and Mae West a second time.”

She may have only had a third-grade education, but Mae West is inarguably the most quoted person of the twentieth century. Popular double entendres such as “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” originated with West. Because of the sheer wealth of her smart and snappy one-liners, it would be next to impossible to limit a list of Mae’s top quotes to just ten.  So instead I am sharing a top ten of my personal favourite Mae West quotes. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Continue reading ““Goodness Had Nothin’ to Do With It, Dearie”: Favorite Mae West Quotes”

Barbie: A Doll’s Uprising

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The only thing bigger than their breasts was their smiles. The women lived in a large pink house, shared a pink convertible and ran their own clothing shop where they sold – you guessed it – little pink dresses. There was no need for men in their world: when the ladies felt like a little romance, they had each other. When they weren’t in the shop, you could probably find them in little striped bikinis, lounging by the pool which doubled as my parent’s bathroom sink.

Yep, I was a Barbie girl and this was my Barbie’s world.

I didn’t know back then that Barbie’s figure – with its itty-bitty waist, huge perky boobs and tippy-toed feet – made her a controversial role model and I definitely had no idea of the origins of that sexy figure; that Barbie owed her bodacious bod to an ancestor named Lilli, an adult toy based on Bild Lilli, a popular comic strip about a high-end call girl.

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Sold at bars and cigar shops, the Lilli doll was meant as a stag gift for adult men. On a 1956 vacation in Switzerland, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler was inspired by Lilli to create a similar doll – but this one for little girls, who up until then were expected to play with baby dolls.  Back home, male toy buyers scoffed at her idea.

“Each said ‘Ruth, you’ve made a major mistake with this doll. Little girls want cutesy, cuddly baby dolls. They all want to pretend to be mommies.’ No, little girls want to pretend to be bigger girls.” – Ruth Handler

Sixty years later, Barbie is still here and Handler is still right.  Personally, I love that Barbie liberated herself from the trappings of a misogynist joke, morphing from sex object to independent woman. No longer just an object of male fantasy, Barbie became a conduit for girlhood dreams and ambitions.  Over the years, Barbie has been a teacher, a rock star, an astronaut and – most importantly – whatever the little girl holding her in her hand wants to be.

“My whole philosophy was that through the doll, a little girl could be anything she wanted to be. She became not just a doll. She became part of that child through those growing up years. Many of those children set their life’s dreams, their goals, through Barbie. Many of them said Barbie helped them achieve those dreams. That’s a pretty heavy thing, but it’s true”.  – Ruth Handler

I’ve always loved experimenting with fashion and when I was in my 20s, I went deliciously overboard: wigs, PVC dresses, NSFW miniskirts, tiaras – you name it.  Back then, people would sometimes call me a “Barbie doll”.  It’s interesting: when women called me this, it was always with affection and good humor. However when men said it, it was with a sneer: using the doll’s name as a dismissive put-down.

Too bad for them I took it as a compliment.

Silent Film Review: Stage Struck (1925)

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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)

 

 

 

 

The Way We Wore Part 1: The Women (1939)

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The Women (1939)

 “When anything I wear doesn’t please your husband, I take it off.”

Director: George Cukor

Gowns and Fashion Show by Adrian

MGM’s star-studded The Women boasted an all-female cast but don’t let that fool you: it may very well be one of the most sexist movies ever made. The film’s original tagline was “It’s all about men!” and the plot revolves around a romantic tug of war between a society wife (played by Norma Shearer) and her husband’s mistress (Joan Crawford, chewing up scenes, along with the aforementioned husband, as sassy shop girl Crystal Allen). So why should we watch The Women today? For the clothes, of course! Particularly the six-minute fashion parade styled by Adrian.

Hailed by MGM as “Hollywood’s foremost studio designer”, Adrian’s over 250 film credits include designing the costumes for The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dinner at Eight (1933) and Grand Hotel (1932). In the 1940 MGM featurette Hollywood: Style Center of the World, the film’s narrator declares that Adrian “has probably done more to influence style trends the world over than any other designer.” In the featurette, a young farm girl named Mary goes to town to buy a dress for her date with Jim. The saleslady assures her that the dress she chooses is styled the same as the one that “Joan Crawford wears in her new picture.”

And so to this quiet little town, far from the Metropolitan areas, the Hollywood influence reaches out to style and gown Mary just as smartly as Joan Crawford,” the narrator boasts. “Today the girl from the country is just as modern and dresses just as smartly as her big city sister.”

In The Women Adrian takes us on a “voyage into fashion land” as the black&white film morphs into eye popping technicolor and the viewer is treated to a department store fashion parade. In the 1930s, department stores held live fashion shows complete with tea and sandwiches; the models were commonly referred to as “mannequins” so sometimes these shows were also called “mannequin parades”. Wide brimmed hats, wide shouldered belted jackets, feathered caps, silk turbans, matching gloves and Gone With the Wind inspired wide skirted gowns with puffed sleeves and high necks: this “voyage” has it all, including a rather creepy beach cape with a Frankenstein-like man’s hand as a clasp. The feminine, frilly and sometimes over the top styles showcase a smorgasbord of late 1930’s fashion. For an audience that was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, this parade must have been an eye-candy store fantasy of indulgence.

Written by Heather Babcock