On Sunday, October 23rd, I had the pleasure and honor of being the speaker at the 29thVintage Film Festival’s Brown Bag Lunch Seminar. I spoke on the topic of “Dangerous Dames: Celebrating the Women of Pre-Code Gangster Movies”. My partner and I arrived in beautiful Port Hope on the Friday evening of the Festival so that we could take in some of the great classic films that the Festival had to offer. Trust me, you haven’t seen Frankenstein (1931) until you’ve watched it under the twinkling “stars” of the magnificent Capitol Theatre!
Below, I have posted a condensed and edited version of my speech. I want to thank Rick Hill, Rick Miller, the Marie Dressler Foundation and the Vintage Film Festival Committee for having given me this wonderful opportunity!
My partner and I are looking forward to attending the 29th Vintage Film Festival at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. The Festival runs from Friday, October 21st – Sunday, October 23rd. I am honored to have been asked to be the speaker at the Festival’s Brown Bag Lunch seminar on the Sunday. I will be speaking on the topic of “Dangerous Dames: the Women of Pre-Code Gangster Movies”.
As such, I thought it was a good time to reshare an essay that I wrote a couple of years ago about one of my favorite “dames”, Jean Harlow. The essay, Jean Harlow: My Kind of Dame, was published in 2020 on the Inanna Publications’ blog. You can read it here.
One of the topics that I will be discussing during my talk is the importance of Harlow’s casting in the influential Pre-Code gangster movie The Public Enemy (1931).
“There are certain things that simply do not belong on the screen. The subject matter of Scarface is one of them,” The Film Daily wrote in its 1932 review of the now-legendary gangster classic. “It should never have been made.”
Audiences disagreed but Scarface producers Howard Hughes and Howard Hawks (the latter also directed) knew that they would. As if to show their distaste for the Eighteenth Amendment, movie-goers in the 1920s and early 1930s hungered – or should I say, thirsted – for the gangster movie: in 1927, when Paramount Pictures released Underworld (arguably the Granddaddy of the gangster genre) theatres had to keep the film playing 24 hours a day just to keep up with public demand.
Warner Bros. began 1931 with a bang when they released the influential gangster movie Little Caesar in January of that year and The Public Enemy in the spring. Both films made household names of their leading men Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, respectfully. Scarface, distributed by United Artists, is the third film to fill out the “Holy Trinity” of the great pre-Code gangster movies and, like its beer-and-blood soaked predecessors, it made a star of its male lead, Paul Muni (as the Capone-inspired Tony Camonte), and co-star George Raft. However Scarface also boasts two of the most interesting performances by women in the gangster genre: Karen Morley as tough moll Poppy and, most decidedly, Ann Dvorak as Tony’s ambitious younger sister Cesca.
Picture F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with Al Capone as the protagonist and you have a pretty good idea of Scarface. Striking with its use of shadows and symbolism, Scarface is a tale of the American Dream…and in an America caught in the double fisted grip of Prohibition and the Great Depression, it’s a dream gone dangerously delirious – a dream fueled by buckets of bathtub gin; a dream which can be poisonous if taken straight. Stylish and visually dazzling, Scarface is in many ways a precursor to film noir, particularly in its opening scene which depicts – largely by the use of shadows – Tony killing a rival gang boss.
Although the role of Tony is obviously based on Capone, no one in the movie actually refers to him as “Scarface”; this is due to a compromise of sorts between Hughes and the Hays Office, who wanted Hughes to change the title of the film, fearing that it glamorized Capone (…or maybe they just feared Capone). Thankfully, Hughes kept the original title intact but removed all references to the name “Scarface” in the finished film. Even so, the movie was on Capone’s radar. According to Thomas Doherty in his fascinating book Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934, one of Capone’s henchmen told director Howard Hawks that “the Big Fellow” wanted to look over the picture. “The Big Shot will have to lay down his money at the box office if he wants to see Scarface,” the unflappable Hawks replied. Screenwriter Ben Hecht – who also co-wrote the script for Underworld – allegedly convinced Capone’s associates to become consultants on the movie.
“I feel like I’m being shoved into a corner”, Mickey Rooney (as Dan Brady) says during the final half of Quicksand (1950), “and if I don’t get out soon it will be too late.”
This one line neatly encapsulates the situation of most leading men in the film noir genre.
Sharply directed with flair by Irving Pichel, Quicksand tells the story of Dan Brady (Rooney), an aw-shucks, apple pie eating auto mechanic who’s biggest problem at the beginning of the movie is that his gorgeous girlfriend Helen (Barbara Bates) is getting too serious. “I spent four years in the Navy fighting for freedom, why get anchored down now?” he whines to his unsympathetic pals. “Some dames are sure hard to shake off,” his friend Buzz replies. Cue sexy blonde bombshell Vera (Jeanne Cagney) and the jazz saxophone soundtrack. With her trench coat, platinum Harlow locks and that quintessential Cagney swagger, she turns Dan away from his apple pie. Surprisingly, she agrees to a date but now Dan has another problem: it’s five days until payday and he’s flat busted – how’s he gonna show a swell dame like Vera a good time? Desperate and horny, Dan “borrows” twenty dollars from his employer’s cash register. The stolen dough leads him down a rabbit hole of crime and depravity.
In many ways, Quicksand is a Catholic parable: sexual desire leads to stealing and stealing leads to murder. But never mind the moralizing – Quicksand is a fun movie with a standout cast, making it one of the most enjoyable film noir films I have seen thus far.
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.
Listen, don’t think you can walk in here and take over this joint. There’s lots of big sharks in here that just live on fresh fish like you.
Susie (Dorothy Burgess), Ladies They Talk About
On the silver screen of the 1930s, beauty and talent counted for some but personality was worth a lot more. Lucky Barbara Stanwyck had all three – and how! One of the most quintessential actresses of the Pre-Code era, Stanwyck could be both tough-as-nails and vulnerable at the same time, as showcased in two of her best movies from this time period, Baby Face (1933) and Ladies They Talk About (1933). In both movies, Stanwyck plays the “good bad girl”, a term coined by Henry James Forman in his 1933 book Our Movie-Made Children to describe a leading female character who combines “sweetness” with “loose morals”.
If there were any doubts that Depression-era audiences adored the “good bad girl”, the trailer for Ladies They Talk About casts them aside, exclaiming:
Men called her BEAUTIFUL! Women called her BAD! Police called her DANGEROUS! You’ll call her WONDERFUL!
Released on February 4th, 1933 and starring Stanwyck as Nan, a “beautiful gun moll” who helps rob a bank and gets sent to the slammer, Ladies They Talk About was Warner Bros’ feminine take on the prison film, a genre that was incredibly popular in the early 1930s. In 1932, Warner Bros. released the hard hitting classics I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, although both movies were predated by RKO Radio Pictures’ Hell’s Highway (released in September of that year; Fugitive followed in November and Sing Sing in December). The success of Ladies They Talk About encouraged Warner Bros. to do for the gangster flick what Ladies did for the prison movie, with the surprisingly feminist Blondie Johnson(1933), starring Joan Blondell as an organized crime boss.
Pre-Code Hollywood loved gangsters and the feeling was reciprocated. The infamous Bonnie Parker adored the movies and, like many poor and working class girls of her time, saw in them a way out of drudgery and poverty. In March 1930, Parker hid a gun under her dress to help her boyfriend Clyde Barrow escape from jail. It was April of 1933 however when the two bank robbing love birds became household names: when authorities investigated the Barrow gang’s hideout, they found rolls of unprocessed film containing posed images of the couple that were soon splashed across newspapers nationwide. It was the photos of Bonnie that captured the public’s imagination the most: tight sweater, gun at her hip, cigar wedged between her lips: women like this had only ever existed in the movies. Until now. Did Bonnie see Ladies They Talk About and was she influenced by it? It’s certainly plausible.
“The Big Shots aren’t little crooks like you. They’re politicians.”
If Karl Marx baked a birthday cake and laced it with marijuana, the results would probably be very similar to You and Me (1938), a delicious grab bag of a movie which combines humour, film-noir, romance, musical numbers and a social message all to delightful – and dizzying – effect. But what did Paramount expect when they asked Fritz Lang, the German director best known for his Weimar-era expressionist films such as Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), to direct a romantic comedy?
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.
“I’m sorry I ever agreed to do the grapefruit bit.” – Mae Clarke
In black & white film, Mae Clarke inhabited the grey zone exclusive to Pre-Code cinema. “Nice Girl”, “Bad Girl”, “Hooker with a Heart of Gold”: Clarke’s characters never stayed still long enough to fit into easy Hollywood tropes. She wouldn’t let them.
Sexy but too sophisticated for cheesecake and yet too edgy to be a sophisticate, Mae’s defiance at being easily defined is probably one of the reasons why her career waned with the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in July of 1934.
In 1931 though, during Hollywood’s bold Pre-Code era, Mae was at the height of her career, delivering memorable performances in four important films which continue to awe, inspire and influence today: Frankenstein, The Front Page, Waterloo Bridge and The Public Enemy. In three of these films Mae comes to a bad end; in one she dies, in two she narrowly escapes death and in the fourth she famously endures a degrading humiliation. In all four movies, Mae portrays tragic figures who derive little pleasure and much pain from their romantic attachments.