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”

My Debut Novel “Filthy Sugar” Launching in May 2020!

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In the year 2000, I decided to start taking my writing more seriously. Perhaps, I allowed myself to think, I could even turn this into a career. It’s been a long strange trip, filled with plenty of rejections and self-doubt but peppered with just enough encouragement and publications to keep me going. I am so proud and pleased to announce that my debut novel Filthy Sugar will be released with Inanna Publications in May 2020.

Set in the mid-1930s, Filthy Sugar tells the story of Wanda Whittle, a nineteen-year-old dreamer who models fur coats in an uptown department store, but who lives in a crowded rooming house with her hard-working widowed mother and shrewd older sister, Evelyn, in the “slums” behind the city’s marketplace; a world where “death is always close but life is stubborn.” Bored with the daily grind and still in shock from the sudden death of her father, Wanda finds both escapism and inspiration in the celluloid fantasies of the Busby Berkeley musicals, Greta Garbo dramas, and Jean Harlow sex comedies. Strutting up and down the aisles of Blondell’s department store, her peep-toe high heels drumming out a steady beat on the waxed linoleum floors, Wanda fantasizes that she’s Ruby Keeler, the tap dancing sweetheart from 42nd Street. But Wanda wants more than to wear a glamorous woman’s coat–she wants to live inside of her flesh.

Her dreams come true after a chance encounter with the mysterious Mr. Manchester, proprietor of the Apple Bottom burlesque theatre. Suddenly Wanda is thrust into a world of glitter and grit. Descending from the rickety, splintered roof top of the Apple Bottom theatre on a red velvet swing, Wanda Whittle morphs into a dream named Wanda Wiggles; sweeter than a strawberry sundae and tastier than a deep dish apple pie. At the Apple Bottom she meets Lili Belle, a naughty cartoon flapper brought to life; Queenie, a sultry headliner whom Wanda feels drawn to like a bee to a butterfly bush; the sweet and salty Eddie, a drummer who thumps out his words like bullets from a machine gun and Brock Baxter, the Apple Bottom’s vaudevillian comic whose apple cheeked, pretty boy exterior belies his sinister intentions.

All will have an impact on Wanda’s journey. Cowardly boxers, shady coppers, dime store hoodlums, and painted ladies–Wanda will encounter them all! On her voyage from rags to riches and back again, Wanda experiences a sexual awakening and achieves personal independence as she discovers that a girl doesn’t need a lot of sugar to be sensational!

Filthy Sugar, a novel by Heather Babcock coming in May 2020 with Inanna Publications!

Happy Birthday, Clara Bow!

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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!”

Remembering Jean Harlow and Saratoga (1937)

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Saratoga (1937) is most notable for being Jean Harlow’s last film: she died of kidney failure during filming and a stand-in was used for her remaining scenes. The film was released on July 23rd, 1937, only a little over six weeks after her death. In Saratoga, Harlow (who really should be remembered as much for her impeccable comic timing as for being a sex goddess) stars alongside a “who’s who” of 1930’s Hollywood talent including Clark Gable, Hattie McDaniel, Lionel Barrymore and Una Merkel. For the most part, the film is a delightful romantic comedy buoyed by the chemistry of its cast. A dark cloud hovers over the film’s final 15 or 20 minutes though when Harlow suddenly disappears and a skinny imposter, face hidden and voice dubbed, takes her place, like the Grim Reaper in a sun bonnet. The most lively, vivacious woman in Hollywood vanishes right before our eyes.

Heather Babcock, 2019

“All that Savors Indecency”: The early 20th Century’s Campaign for Movie Censorship

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“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.

 

 

“It’s not what I say but the way I say it”: Ten Sassy Quotes from Pre-Code Hollywood

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By Heather Babcock

The advent of “talkies” (sound films) in the late 1920s coincided with the public’s increased access to radio and jazz music; this combined with the women’s rights movement and a burgeoning sexual revolution inspired a lot of the slang and witticisms that populate classic Hollywood movies, particularly those released during the Pre-Code period.

As someone who loves language, I enjoy the bon mots and word play of early sound films (and silent movies too – we must remember that although the words were not audible, there was still quite a lot of talking in pre-sound films). Hollywood pioneers like Mae West and screenwriter Anita Loos believed that language, like sex, should be fun. Although sexy, their witticisms were suggestive rather than coarse, teasing instead of tawdry.

Here is my top ten list, in no particular order, of the sassiest, cheekiest and sometimes sexiest quotes from Pre-Code Hollywood movies. If at first glance these lines don’t seem saucy or hot enough for you, try reading them out loud with a hand on your hip and a cigarette dangling from your lips. As the great Mae West said, “It’s not what I say but the way I say it.”

  1. “Will ya stop reminding me of Heaven when I’m so close to the other place?” – Joan Blondell, Three on a Match (1932)
  1. “You can’t show me a thing – I just came from the delivery room.” – Edward Nugent, Night Nurse (1931)
  1. “Your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie.” – Jean Harlow, Bombshell (1933)
  1. It takes more than flat heels and glasses to make a sensible woman.” – Ruth Chatterton, Female (1933)
  1. “When I kiss ’em, they stay kissed for a long time.” – Jean Harlow, Red-Headed Woman (1932)
  1. “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.” – Mae West, I’m No Angel (1933)
  1. “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.” – Bette Davis, The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)
  1. “You make any joint look like a speakeasy.” – Joan Blondell, Night Nurse (1931)
  1. Police detective: “You don’t look like these other women.” Marlene Dietrich: “Give me time.” – Blonde Venus (1932)
  1. “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” – Jean Harlow, Hell’s Angels (1930)

 

 

 

 

 

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

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“Say, it’s just as easy to hook a rich man as it is to get hooked by a poor one.”

 

What do you get when you pair one of the wittiest screenwriters of her time with Hollywood’s original Platinum Blonde? The sexiest, funniest and most outrageous movie of the Pre-Code period, that’s what. Based on a screenplay by Anita Loos (a prolific writer most famous for her 1925 novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Red-Headed Woman (1932) stars sexpot Jean Harlow chewing up scenery (and men) as Lil Andrews, the titular red-headed woman, a hedonist who sets out to seduce rich men in order to better her lot in society. Lil Andrews lies, cheats, and even attempts murder but, thanks to Harlow’s gleeful performance, you can’t help but love her. Harlow, tired of being typecast in trophy-moll roles and eager to prove her comedic chops, actively campaigned for the part, even going so far as to don a red wig during public appearances. It’s difficult to imagine any other actress bringing the sheer shameless fun to the role that the vivacious Harlow does. As women unfortunately know all too well, trying to walk the fine line of being “sexy” without being “slutty” is akin to tap dancing on a tightrope. In Red-Headed Woman (1932), Harlow takes the tightrope and turns it into a lasso – she’s in charge. Bucking the censors who decreed that bad girls must always be punished and/or redeemed by a movie’s end, Red-Headed Woman (1932) rewards the deliciously unrepentant Lil with a happy ending (complete with a wealthy patron and his handsome chauffeur) – a move which had the Catholic Legion of Decency foaming at the mouth.

By Heather Babcock, 2019