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!
“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.
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.
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 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.
“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.