“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.
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.
I asked myself this question a few years ago, while watching a 2017 reboot of King Kong in which the main female character, unlike Fay Wray in the 1933 original, never screams. Not once. I’ve since noticed this “no-scream” trend with other recent action and horror films (a notable exception being Annabelle Wallis in the surprisingly campy 2021 release Malignant). Is it that today the Scream Queen is considered un-PC? Do filmmakers worry that showing a woman character screaming will render her weak and helpless? If so, this kind of thinking is nothing more than misogyny disguised as feminism.
What I lack in bodily strength, I make up for in lung power. My scream has frightened off would-be attackers. My scream saved me (once) from being raped. My scream is not shameful. My scream is a weapon. My scream is powerful.
So without further adieu, all hail The Soda Fountain’s Top Five Hollywood Scream Queens of alltime. Distressed Dames, yes. Damsels in Distress? Never.
One of my new favorite blogs is Six Sentences . Created and edited by Robert McEvily, Six Sentences showcases daily flash fiction. It’s a great creative blast to kick start my day! I am thrilled that my flash fiction piece Gaslight Gertie has been published on the site. Gaslight Gertie is set in the early 1920’s and was inspired by my great grandmother, who worked as a domestic servant. You can read it – as well as other fabulous short stories six sentences long – here.
You know that dream where you discover a room in your house that you never even knew existed? Well, imagine that room filled with various 1930’s movie stars (including Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Butterfly McQueen and Pat O’Brien to name just a few) as well as Joe Louis, Ed Sullivan, Dick Clark, Richard Pryor, Busby Berkeley, Rudy Vallee and Colonel Sanders (yes, THE real Colonel Sanders), serving up his famous buckets of fried chicken while a young Monkees-inspired rock band restores everyone’s faith in America.
No, this isn’t a dream. This is The Phynx (1970).
The Phynx (1970) has been called the “Holy Grail” of bad movies but it’s not bad at all – in fact, I’d argue that it’s actually pretty groovy. The film was released in May of 1970 but Warner Bros.-Seven Arts pulled the picture after only a few screenings. As it was shelved so quickly, no movie posters were created (hence the banner photo of my physical DVD of the film, in lieu of a proper poster image). It would languish in obscurity in the vaults for forty-two years before Warner Bros. finally released the film on DVD in 2012, as part of their manufactured-on-demand Archive Collection.
But why did Warner Bros. pull this movie when so many worse films have seen wide release? Why, some may ask, did Warner Bros. make the picture at all? Fifty-one years later and counting, the riddle of The Phynx remains unsolved.